Terry v. Ohio Deserves History’s Dustbin

Madison, Wisconsin; Ferguson, Missouri, Staten Island, New York; the list is endless and growing. And the tears keep flowing. Mostly young Black men deprived of their lives without benefit of any opportunity to defend themselves. They can’t defend themselves physically because that will be treated as a threat on the officers’ lives. They never get a chance to hire an attorney and defend themselves in court. It’s all over before it starts. More lives gone. More families grieving. That, apparently, has become American “justice.”

The Constitution says that we have the right to be free of “unreasonable searches and seizures … and no Warrants shall issue but upon probable cause ….” Probable cause became the standard for the constitutionality of an arrest or seizure of property. In 1968 the Warren Court decided a case known as Terry v. Ohio.[1] In that decision, the Warren Court said that the police do not have to have probable cause to stop and frisk someone. They said “reasonable suspicion” was enough. Although the Warren Court laid the foundations for a much more just society, making clear that segregation by race is “inherently unequal” and unconstitutional, mandating one person one vote and insisting on the enforcement of most of the Bill of Rights, Terry v. Ohio begat the reenactment of the racist patrols that kept the Blacks down on the farm throughout the post-Civil War segregated South, now expanded throughout the nation.

Terry v. Ohio is the source of the irritation of our Black fellow citizens by constant interruptions in their daily business, constant demands that they submit to searches, constant expressions not of cordial greetings from the police but constant demands that our Black fellow Americans obey and respect “the man.”

Terry v. Ohio is a source of many of the interactions between minorities and police that have gone disastrously wrong. It ramps up every exchange. There’s no “Hi, how are you?” It’s “turn around with your hands up” and from that moment everyone is on edge –minority individuals because they are out of control and don’t know what is going to happen to them, the cops because they are now ordering people around and expecting the worst. Indeed, when someone is ordered to put their hands up, any motion that doesn’t look right to the officer now looks dangerous. Everything ramps up. Adding insult to injury, we have statistics – nine-five percent of those stops are useless nonsense.

We would have less crime without Terry v. Ohio. There would be less anger without Terry v. Ohio. African-Americans would be less convinced that the world is determined to keep them down without the irritants enforced under Terry v. Ohio. We would be safer without Terry v. Ohio.

Indeed we were safer before Terry v. Ohio. In the world I grew up in, racial minorities were not a significant source of street crime. The world that so many of us, Black and white for different reasons, have learned to fear, is a post-Terry v. Ohio world.

There’s something else I’d do – I’d give the police a choice – no guns without full civilian accountability, fully empowered civilian review boards with the power to investigate, subpoena and see all documents and interview all witnesses without restrictions, without privileges, contractual barriers or anything else that prevents a full and impartial investigation. And I’d insist that cops turn on their cameras before they stop, seize, arrest or otherwise prevent us from doing our business without restraint.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, April 14, 2015.

[1] 392 U.S. 1 (1968).

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