What is wrong with a Terry stop without reasonable suspicion ? It would not be better to anticipate the committing of a crime, sacrificing a bit the rights of the population?

I am asking about the philosophical grounds. A book pointing about the principles of civil rights would be nice.

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    Well, by definition that would make it unreasonable. ;)
    – Obie 2.0
    Mar 18, 2019 at 23:17
  • I mean without reasonable suspicion. A police hunch because the way you dress is not a reasonable suspicion.
    – user25657
    Mar 18, 2019 at 23:19
  • Actually, Wikipedia does mention that "inappropriate attire" has been successfully used as part of a reasonable suspicion, though the citation links to a textbook that probably isn't available online and not a particular case. Mar 19, 2019 at 3:54
  • I believe this question could be improved by removing the sentence about a book on civil rights, since SE is not a place for product recommendations. Mar 19, 2019 at 3:56
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    @IllusiveBrian I didn't mean to imply that the question is off topic, but rather that I think it could be clearer. It seems to be asking "why can't the police stop people even without reasonable suspicion if that will prevent a crime." But if the police (reasonably) believe that the stop will prevent a crime then they have reasonable suspicion, so if they don't have reasonable suspicion then they have no basis to think that the stop will prevent a crime.
    – phoog
    Mar 19, 2019 at 12:47

2 Answers 2


In any civil rights case, the courts must weigh the rights of citizens against the government's legitimate interests which are furthered by violating those rights. As the question points out, the government has a legitimate interest in preventing crime and catching criminals. So why (in America) is the right against unreasonable search and seizure upheld?

It is upheld for the same basic reason other rights are upheld - we do not want to live in a society where they are not. Following the logic in the question, the government ought to be able to enter a person's home or business whenever they have a "hunch" that that person has illegal goods or is committing a crime, whether or not that person is a politician of an opposing party to governor or a journalist writing an expose on the corruption of the local mayor. If this sounds extreme, know that it was law during the mid 18th century in the American colonies, except without the "hunch" requirement - customs officers could be granted "writs of assistance," which allowed them to enter any place where they believed smuggled goods were being stored, without consideration for damage caused by the search. These were so frequently abused in the opinion of not just the Founding Fathers but most lawmakers in the Union that a person's right against searches without particularized warrants was enshrined in most state constitutions as well as the US Constitution.

As a society, there is some agreement that a person can expect greater protection against search of their land property than their person while in public. However, in practice, Terry stops are often accused of abuses, especially racial profiling. For the most part, society agreed ~70 years ago (or more, if you count from the 14th Amendment) that the police should treat all people equally under the law, regardless of their race, because it is unjust to be treated differently by the police due to race. As alluded to earlier, causeless or non-particularized stops are more generally a tool for a government to oppress, by making people fearful of retaliation in the form of stops if they draw the ire of the government. Even a Terry stop can cause a person to be fearful of more altercations with the police when they go out, and can damage their reputation if another person sees them being stopped and assumes they are a criminal. So, the courts, in weighing the conflict between the agreed-upon right of the people against unreasonable seizures, and the legitimate interest of the government to prevent crime, have to decide at what point a search is "reasonable." The "hunch" standard proposed by the question is effectively arbitrary and easily abused. The standard of "probable cause," which is the standard for an arrest, is considered to hamper the government too much. So, for the government to effectively carry out their responsibility, the standard for just a stop is set to "reasonable suspicion," which attempts to strike the balance between the rights of the person and the interest of the government.

This is why it is required of the government to articulate their suspicion for a stop to be admissible - the court has to understand exactly what factors led officers feel they had reasonable suspicion to stop a person, in order for the court to throw out evidence if it believes reasonable suspicion was not articulated for its admission. I point this out to show that as a society, we have not just agreed that the government must uphold civil rights, but that it is more important that civil rights are upheld in accordance with the law than that the government is able to use evidence gained by unlawfully violating rights against an alleged criminal, even if that evidence is damning.

To sum this up, while Terry stops are not the most damaging form of seizure, they can still be used to intimidate and oppress people and populations by the government. The courts have recognized this and require the government to articulate reasonable suspicion to justify a Terry stop - less than the probable cause or warrant requirement for an arrest, but still a standard to prevent arbitrary stops of any person.

  • There are at least two errors in this answer. A Terry stop is not a search; it is a seizure. That a Terry stop does not require a warrant has nothing to do with the relative harm caused by a search of a person as compared to the search of a building.
    – phoog
    Mar 19, 2019 at 4:23
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    "A fundamental truth is that any power granted to a government will eventually be abused by some of its officers, especially law enforcement officers." This isn't exactly a fundamental truth, and while it does happen frequently, the first part of this answer makes an otherwise compelling argument sound more like an agenda then you probably want it to.
    – AHamilton
    Mar 19, 2019 at 10:29
  • @AHamilton If it weren't true we wouldn't need to talk about the Bill of Rights or have 18 U.S. Code § 242. I'm not saying in all cases the abuse is intentional or done maliciously - there are cases of good people going too far to do their job. The point about LEOs being especially susceptible is just because their job often involves suspending people's rights, so they have to be very careful to do it legally and can easily make a mistake. I can see how it comes off as anti-Federalist or libertarian though, I'll think about different wording. Mar 19, 2019 at 12:11
  • @phoog 1. You're right, I changed the references to the stops to focus on seizures. 2. That comparison was more to acknowledge the implicit assumption in the question that a Terry stop is less harmful than an arrest, so it shouldn't need to consider a person's civil rights. After editing it was out of place so I removed it, though. Mar 19, 2019 at 12:39
  • I've removed my downvote, but I don't understand "why (in America) is the right against unreasonable search and seizure upheld?" Terry does not allow the police to engage in unreasonable search or seizure; it holds that stopping someone under certain circumstances (with reasonable suspicion) isn't unreasonable.
    – phoog
    Mar 19, 2019 at 12:52

For separation of powers to work, the police must be limited in their powers to judge and punish individuals.

There is always a cause for a terry stop. Removing the demand for a "reasonable" cause is simply allowing police to do Terry stops for any cause, or more specifically, "unreasonable" causes. The prime unreasonable cause is to harass someone, for whatever reason (racism, jealousy, revenge, ego, etc). If used excessively, such harassment can cause people to lose their jobs, among other things. Therefore it does qualify as a power to "judge and punish individuals".

Because we want to limit the powers of police to "judge and punish individuals", we limit Terry stops to situations where they actually contribute to police doing their jobs. In practice, requiring police to report a reasonable cause is just a simple way of asserting that, which doesn't create an undue burden on the police.

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