In Terry v. Ohio, the Supreme Court granted law enforcement broad power to perform a limited stop and search of someone when an officer has reasonable suspicion that the person is engaged in criminal activity. The resulting “Terry stop” created a way for police officers to investigate a suspicious person without requiring full probable cause for an arrest. The officer need only have “reasonable suspicion supported by articulable facts” based on the circumstances and the officer’s policing “experience that criminal activity may be afoot.” Reasonable suspicion is—by design—a broad standard, deferential to police officers’ judgment. Law enforcement officers across the United States employ this powerful tool extensively, performing millions of Terry stops each year.
But what if that suspect description is vague, consisting of few descriptors? Or what if there are many discrepancies between the description given and the appearance of the person the officers eventually stop under suspicion that he is the perpetrator? When reasonable suspicion to stop and frisk someone is based largely on a physical description of a criminal suspect, how “particularized” must that description be?
This Note examines this specific reasonable suspicion factor: the resemblance of a person stopped under Terry to an active suspect description of someone who has very recently committed a crime. Exploring this scenario, this Note seeks to analyze courts’ varying tolerance levels for vague or discrepant suspect descriptions creating reasonable suspicion, discuss the detrimental and unconstitutional impacts of an overly broad standard for this reasonable suspicion factor, and propose a new standard for courts to employ.