Terry v. Ohio

This criminal case from Cleveland, Ohio, resulted in a landmark opinion issued in 1968 by Chief Justice Earl Warren of the Supreme Court of the United States. In Terry vs. Ohio, the nation’s highest court affirmed the ruling of Cuyahoga County Judge Bernard Friedman, which defined the limits of police action for when they “stop and frisk” suspects based on their suspicion of criminal activity. Since 1968, the standard of law articulated in the Terry case has become a bedrock of Fourth Amendment analysis, and has been cited in over 31,800 court opinions. 

A LANDMARK CASE

This case still remains relevant and is regarded as one of the most important criminal cases in the modern history of the Supreme Court of the United States. Terry is regularly studied across law schools and police academies across America. To this day, police officers, lawyers, and courts continue to refer to the decision of Terry vs. Ohio to determine whether police action of “stopping and frisking” criminal suspects is constitutional. The Supreme Court of the United States has never overturned Terry nor has it revisited the specific legal issue from Terry. Courts continue to determine the legality of police searches in cases with legal issues closely related to Terry. In fact, in 2016, the majority of the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in Utah v. Strieff that is is legal for police to search someone, even after that person has been stopped without lawful cause as long as that individual has an outstanding warrant.  

A cartoon showing a white man, dressed as a judge and labeled 'supreme court' holding down a subject whose face is hidden, as another figure dressed as a policeman frisking the suspect.
This Cleveland Press editorial cartoon from June 11th, 1968 depicts Chief Justice Earl Warren holding down a suspect as he is frisked by a policeman. Image courtesy of Brett Hammond.

October 31, 1963

A busy street corney with a variety of business, cars, and busses
The location of the events of October 31st, 1963, the subject of the Terry v. Ohio case. Photo courtesy of Brett Hammond.

On October 31, 1963, while on a routine beat through downtown Cleveland, Cleveland Police detective Martin McFadden with 39 years of police experience noticed three men acting suspiciously and pacing in front of a jewelry store on Euclid Avenue. Concerned the men were “casing a job, a stick up” and were carrying weapons, McFadden identified himself as a police officer and asked them their names. When the men only “mumbled something” in response, McFadden frisked them and found a pistol in John W. Terry’s overcoat pocket, and a revolver in Richard Chilton’s coat pocket. The third man, Katz, was unarmed. McFadden arrested and charged Terry and Chilton with carrying concealed weapons. Judge Bernard Friedman of the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court found the men guilty and ruled that, given the suspicious nature of their behavior and McFadden’s concern for his safety, the decision to frisk was permissible. The appeals court affirmed the decision. Terry appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967, and Chief Justice Earl Warren affirmed the decision of the District Court in the US Supreme Court’s 1968 Landmark opinion.

Role of Cuyahoga County Courts

Cuyahoga County Courthouse, 1957. Photo courtesy of Cleveland State University Michael Schwartz Library, Special Collections.

Terry vs. Ohio is closely connected to the history of Cuyahoga County. Cleveland defense attorney Louis Stokes and Assistant Cuyahoga County Prosecuting Attorney Reuben Payne first argued the issues of this case in the Cuyahoga County Courthouse in 1964. Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas Judge Bernard Friedman heard the case and found that Officer McFadden had not violated the defendants’ Fourth Amendment rights. Eighth District Court of Appeals Judges Joseph Silbert, Joseph Artl, and J.J.P. Corrigan later affirmed the decision of Judge Bernard Friedman. The argument before the Eighth District Court of Appeals was held in the Main Courtroom of the Old Courthouse, located at 1 Lakeside Avenue, Cleveland. Interestingly enough, the Ohio Supreme Court held that there was no substantial constitutional question in this case. The Supreme Court of the United States later accepted review directly from the Eighth District Court of Appeals and affirmed the decisions of Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Bernard Friedman and the judges from the Eighth District Court of Appeals of Ohio. 

A black and white image of two black men wearing suits, one sitting and one standing, posing in an office.
Louis (pictured standing) and Carl Stokes practiced law together as the Stokes & Stokes law firm. Louis Stokes and Assistant Cuyahoga County Prosecuting Attorney Reuben Payne first argued the issues of the Terry v. Ohio case in the Cuyahoga County Courthouse in 1964. Photo courtesy of Shelley Hammond Stokes.

Key Participants

A black and white photo of a black man in a suit.
Reuben Payne, Assistant Cuyahoga County Prosecuting Attorney, first argued the issues of the Terry v. Ohio case along with Louis Stokes in 1964. Photo courtesy of Brett Hammond.

Many of the key participants in this case served important roles in Ohio history. Reuben Payne was a black male born in Scio, Ohio, in 1922. Mr. Payne graduated from Western University and Cleveland-Marshall College of Law. He worked as an assistant law librarian and for the United States General Accounting Office. Mr. Payne was working for the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office at the time of the Terry case and would later become one of Cleveland’s leading defense attorneys. Defense attorney Louis Stokes was also a black male from Ohio who received his law degree from Cleveland-Marshall College of Law. Stokes eventually became one of Cleveland’s foremost criminal defense lawyers. Stokes helped his brother Carl B. Stokes win election as Mayor of Cleveland. Stokes himself was later elected as an Ohio Congressman where he served for 30-years. Judge Bernard Friedman was a white male born in Poland in 1909 and immigrated with his family to the United States and graduated from Western Reserve School of Law. Judge Friedman served in a variety of public positions, including Special Counsel to the Attorney General of the State of Ohio, an attorney with the Public Works administration, and as Cuyahoga County’s deputy registrar of motor vehicles.  

"To give police greater power than a magistrate is to take a long step down the totalitarian path"- dissenting Justice William O. Douglas, quoted in this Plain Dealer article from June 11, 1968, announcing the Supreme Court's decision to uphold the Cuyahoga County Court ruling.

Gallery

FURTHER READINGS

Hamm, Andrew. “Utah v. Strieff.” SCOTUSblog. Accessed January 10, 2024. https://www.scotusblog.com/case-files/cases/utah-v-strieff/.

State v. Terry, 5 Ohio App.2d 122, 214 N.E.2d 114 (1966).

Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 88 S.Ct. 1868, 20 L. Ed. 889 (1968): https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/392/1/ 

“Terry v. Ohio 392 U.S. 1 (1968).” ACLU of Ohio, June 10, 1968. https://www.acluohio.org/en/cases/terry-v-ohio-392-us-1-1968.

“Terry v. Ohio: Encyclopedia of Cleveland History: Case Western Reserve University.” Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, January 1, 2021. https://case.edu/ech/articles/t/terry-v-ohio#:~:text=OHIO%20was%20a%20landmark%20decision,officer%20has%20a%20reasonable%20suspicion.

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