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What Qualifies as a Terry Stop?

July 31, 2017

By van der Veen, Hartshorn, Levin & Lindheim

Recently, the Pennsylvania Superior Court issued an opinion, in which it restated the rule regarding police stops. Despite this clarification, it can still be difficult to determine whether an encounter with the police qualifies as a stop for Fourth Amendment purposes, so if you were recently frisked by the police and were then charged with a crime, it is critical to speak with an experienced criminal defense attorney who can help determine whether the search was unlawful.

Types of Police Encounters

There are three main types of police encounters:

  • Mere encounters;
  • Investigative detentions; and
  • Custodial detentions.

Mere encounters are also known as “requests for information” and do not require the police to have any suspicion that a crime is or has been perpetrated by the target of the encounter. However, this also means that there is no official compulsion to stop and speak with the officer. The second type of encounter, known as an investigative detention, involves a police officer stopping someone because he or she has a reasonable suspicion that a crime has been committed. In these encounters, the subject must stop and undergo a period of detention. Although the situation does not rise to the level of an arrest, it does involve actions that would make a reasonable person feel as though he or she was not free to leave. Investigative stops are more commonly referred to as Terry stops. The third type of encounter is the custodial detention, which is the equivalent of an official arrest and must be supported by probable cause.

Investigative Detentions

The line between a Terry stop and a custodial arrest can be difficult to discern. Fortunately, the Pennsylvania Superior Court recently explained the criteria of an investigative detention. According to the court, when the police order someone to stop, no reasonable person would feel as though they were free to leave. As a result, when a person is told to stop by a uniformed officer, he or she has become the subject of a Terry stop and must comply with the officer’s orders. However, for the stop to be considered legal, the officers must have had a reasonable suspicion that the defendant was engaged in criminal activity.

A reasonable suspicion is more than a mere “hunch,” but must instead be based on specific and articulable facts, that taken together with rational inferences, indicate that a certain individual was involved in criminal activity. In its recent opinion, the Superior Court explained that reasonable suspicion does not exist just because a person is exhibiting nervous behavior or is walking away from the police. Even a radio call indicating that a crime had been committed in the area did not satisfy this burden because the call was anonymous, unconfirmed, and lacking in detail. In these situations, any evidence obtained from the illegal search will be suppressed and cannot be used against the person in court.

Call Today to Speak With an Experienced Criminal Defense Attorney About Your Case

The Fourth Amendment grants people the right to be free of unlawful searches and seizures, so if you were recently stopped and searched by the police in Philadelphia, please contact van der Veen, Hartshorn, Levin & Lindheim by calling (215) 486-0123 to speak with a criminal defense attorney who can evaluate your case. We are eager to help you with your case.


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