investigatory stops

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An investigatory stop is a limited, nonintrusive detention which requires reasonable suspicion. During an investigatory stop, an officer may briefly stop a suspicious person and make reasonable inquiries to confirm or dispel their suspicions. Police actions as part of an investigatory stop may include preliminary questioning or a frisk for weapons.

Under Fourth Amendment jurisprudence, which limits unreasonable searches and seizures, an investigatory stop is an intermediate category of interaction between police and citizens. An investigatory stop falls between a consensual encounter where a citizen is free to leave and only voluntarily cooperates with police and an arrest which requires probable cause that a crime has been committed.

Mere approach and questioning do not amount to an investigatory stop, so reasonable suspicion will be unnecessary in those cases. Police may use reasonable force during an investigatory stop, as the mere use of force will not convert the interaction into an arrest.

An investigatory stop is also sometimes known as a Terry stop based on the rules developed by the Supreme Court in Terry v. Ohio (1968) and subsequent cases. In this case, the Court held that police may approach suspects for purposes of investigating possible criminal activity even in the absence of probable cause, but must be able to show articulable facts that reasonably justify the search or seizure.

[Last updated in June of 2023 by the Wex Definitions Team]