A police officer generally has a right to stop a citizen on the street and ask them questions, even if they do not believe that the person has committed a crime. The officer may even seek consent to search their person or their possessions. However, in most cases, a citizen does not have a duty to comply with a police officer’s request for information or a search. They may have a duty to comply if the officer has a warrant or if they have a reasonable suspicion to conduct a stop and frisk (a pat down). Often, it is hard to tell whether an officer has a sufficient basis to detain someone who wants to leave the scene. You may want to ask an officer who starts an interaction whether you can leave, rather than simply walking away. If the officer tells you that you cannot leave, you should comply and challenge the legality of the interaction later.
Many people wonder if a police officer needs to issue Miranda warnings before asking them questions during these interactions. Miranda rights take effect only if a suspect is being interrogated while they are in custody. If you volunteer information, or if you are not in custody, your statements can be admitted without the police issuing Miranda warnings. Read more here about when Miranda rights take effect.
Should You Talk to the Police?
Many criminal defense attorneys would say that you should never talk to the police if you believe that you may be a suspect, or you should wait until you retain an attorney before speaking with the police. However, there may be some situations in which you can get rid of a minor suspicion by answering a few routine questions. Failing to cooperate with the police, or lying to the police, can result in separate charges. Deciding how to handle a police interaction can be challenging, and you may want to consult a lawyer if you know in advance that the police want to talk to you.
Stop and Identify Laws
In some states, police officers can stop someone and ask them for identification if they have a reasonable suspicion that the person has been involved in criminal activity. If this type of rule applies, you cannot refuse to provide identification, since this can be charged as a separate crime of resisting an officer’s lawful order. Whether a police officer has a reasonable suspicion may be contested. A reasonable suspicion does not need to reach the level of probable cause. Different courts will apply the standard differently.
This type of law also may apply when an officer stops a driver for a traffic infraction. States often permit an officer to require the driver to provide their identification, such as a driver’s license, in these cases.
Some stop and identify laws hinge on whether a person is found to have been loitering. This is a technical term that involves wandering without an apparent purpose in a manner that appears to threaten public safety. In these states, an officer may be able to ask for identification and ask questions about the person’s activities only if they are found to have been loitering. Laws on loitering have been criticized for allowing police officers to discriminate against poor people or minority groups. Sometimes they have been struck down as unconstitutional. However, the best strategy when accused of loitering is to comply with the police officer’s demands and challenge the law in court later, if appropriate.
Stop and Frisks
An officer who has a reasonable suspicion that an individual is armed and dangerous has the right to pat them down, or frisk them. Any frisk must be limited to weapons and the outer clothing of the individual. If the officer finds a weapon or an object that feels like a weapon, they can retrieve it, and it can be used against the suspect in court, even if it is not actually a weapon. If the officer finds an object that is not a weapon but that is obviously illegal, they can seize the object, and the prosecution later can bring charges based on it.
If the officer can tell that an object is not a weapon, they cannot investigate it further if they cannot tell what it is. They may still ask the individual about it. Any evidence that was obtained in violation of the scope of a stop and frisk usually can be suppressed.