Top 10 Case Laws All FTOs Should Know

May 31, 2017

[Publisher’s Note: The materials on this website are provided for informational purposes only and do not constitute legal advice. You should not act or rely on any information contained in this website without first seeking the advice of an attorney.]

We’re always surprised when we hear a fellow officer, especially a field training officer, unable to describe the details of Graham v. Connor. It has such significance that anyone in law enforcement should be intimately familiar with it. A lunchtime discussion of that nature eventually leads to this question: What other cases should FTOs be able to explain and discuss in context to their own investigations?

Yes, most officers know to read Miranda rights. They understand what a stop-and-frisk is, and they probably know that an anonymous tip needs just a little more credibility to be viable. But if that officer is placed in a position where they need to defend their actions, or the actions of their trainee, can they directly relate what occurred to a specific case law to make their case defensible?

So, with that, we present to you, in two parts, what we believe are the top ten case laws that you should read, understand, train, and be able to explain to someone else. The first five cases are discussed here, and the next five will follow in a second article.

Note: The descriptions below will be brief. This shouldn’t be misconstrued to be a case law update or legal advice. But rather, we are urging that you do your own reading and research, in detail, to improve your knowledge. Understand that we are not attorneys, and you should always seek out your agency’s legal advisor for specific direction or questions. Of course, your specific region Circuit Courts rulings might vary.

Graham v. Connor

This case is the cornerstone of use-of-force examinations. It holds that all uses of force, deadly or not, will be held to an “objective reasonableness” standard. This standard is examined under three prongs: 1) The severity of the crime, 2) whether the suspect resisted arrested or attempted to evade arrest by fleeing, and 3) whether the suspect posed an immediate threat to the safety of the officer or the public (the most important factor). One prong could be severe while the other two are not, or they could all be of moderate severity. This is in addition to considering whether verbal warnings were given or if lesser intrusive means were available.

When I use force, my sergeant requires me to explain it within the parameters of Graham v. Connor. Weighing out the three prongs, were my actions objectively reasonable? That is to say, would a reasonable officer in the same situation, with the same information, have reacted similarly? If your trainee has a use of force incident, ask him to explain the three prongs to you.

Terry v. Ohio

Terry gives an officer the ability to perform a search for weapons with only reasonable suspicion, when the officer reasonably believes that the person may be armed and dangerous. Experienced officers know they need reasonable suspicion to stop and frisk. But do you know that you need independent reasonable suspicion that the subject is armed and dangerous? If asked, can you start listing what constitutes reasonable suspicion for a stop? How about reasonable suspicion for a pat down? These might include the person’s appearance, their actions, prior knowledge of the offender, their demeanor, your training and experience, the location, time of day, the purpose for your stop, the subject’s companions or lack thereof, or a possible source of information.

Too frequently we rely on broad terms such as reasonable suspicion or exigency without taking the time to focus on numerable, definitive details.

Miranda v. Arizona

Every officer and most citizens are familiar with Miranda. It requires that we explain the Fifth Amendment rights prior to an interrogation. But when do Miranda rights need to be provided and what happens if the subject doesn’t reply? The two biggest concepts to bear in mind are: custody and interrogation. If both are present, then Miranda rights need to be read before interrogation. I’ve had several suspects in the back seat of my car, frothing at the mouth because I haven’t read them their rights. They simply couldn’t understand that I didn’t want to talk to them.

On the other end of the scale is a phone interview with a suspect. Since they are free to hang up at any time and not in custody, rights don’t need to be read. But are you comfortable explaining to your trainee what “perceived custody” is? How do the number of officers, their position, or the age and mindset of the suspect affect whether they believe they are free to go? If you are unsure how to answer what happens if a suspect simply doesn’t reply, read up on Berghuis v. Thompkins as well.

Minnesota v. Dickerson

This case discusses whether the Fourth Amendment permits the seizure of contraband detected through a police officer’s sense of touch during a protective pat down search.

From personal experience, I find that the part most often overlooked in Terry is the focus on “weapons.” That is exactly what led to Minnesota v. Dickerson. An officer conducts a pat down, which we must remember should be running our hands over the outer clothing, and feels something. The officer continues to manipulate the item between his fingers until determines it to be crack cocaine. The officer then reaches in to seize control of the contraband, knowing its possession is illegal. Is that permissible?

The original argument was that a Terry Frisk allowed for the seizure of items located through “Plain Feel.” The court agreed, but did not care for the extra manipulation. A Terry Frisk only permits the discovery of weapons and contraband through a limited pat down of the exterior clothing.

So, how do you identify something as a pipe, a bag of drugs, or another illicit item by simply running your hand over it? That’s a great discussion to have with your trainee. This is why training bulletins and information sharing are important. How many emails have you deleted showing pen knives, cellphone guns, and pepper spray in markers? Use of those bulletins can assist you when you feel an item that might be cellular phone, but it might also be a concealed firearm.

Florida v. J.L.

We’ve all been dispatched to that suspicious call with “caller refused contact” attached to it. What does that mean for us? How reliable is that information?

Florida v J.L. advises us that an anonymous tip reporting a subject is carrying a gun illegally is not, without more, sufficient justification for a stop and frisk. This case reflects back to Terry v. Ohio, which requires reasonable suspicion and holds that an anonymous tip is not enough to meet that standard. Even if the caller doesn’t want follow up contact, capturing their telephone number and name, and recording their call bolster your case. This is equally important if your trainee is flagged down by a citizen. Ensure that you have some means of following up with them after the fact.


Again, we’re not lawyers. But everyone in law enforcement owes it to themselves and the community they serve to have a functional handle on the laws that most affect our work. Take some time to review these cases, discuss them in briefing, with your peers, and your trainees.

Stay tuned for the next installment of “Top Ten Case Laws Every FTO Should Know.” Until then, stay safe.


  1. verytiredtexan

    Great article! I look forward to the next five. I’ve already been reading various articles on the Minnesota v. Dickerson. Being as a chunk of soap could feel the same as the crack, I can see why they said that was not admissible. What about a dime bag of marijuana? It could be a bag of spice (if you couldn’t smell it). I think that the only thing that could apply would be a crack pipe. With no extra manipulation, you can immediately tell a glass crack pipe. Nothing else feels like a glass crack pipe. The SCOTUS is somewhat contradictory in the opinion. Yes you can seize something that feels like contraband, but not the crack rock unless you just swipe one hand over it. That is a very high standard.

  2. kenneth wise

    Spot on!


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