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Encounters with Police

Student Legal Services - ASUW

Close Encounters of the Police Kind

When a police officer approaches me and asks me questions on the street can I just walk away? 
This depends. There are several kinds of encounters that you may have with the police and each type of encounter changes the rights you have. First, the most basic encounters that a person has with police are consensual encounters on the street. These encounters include stopping to ask for directions or even an officer asking you if you have seen a suspect running down the street. Here, you are not suspected of any wrongdoing and as such you can ignore the officer and walk away because you have no obligation to tell the police anything you don't want to and the officer in this situation has no reason to "detain" you. On the opposite end of the spectrum is a full blown arrest. This is where the officer has either a warrant for your arrest or has probable cause to arrest you for an offense and therefore does arrest you. Obviously in this case, you are not free to just walk away when the police approach you since they have legal authority to place you under arrest. In fact, if you tried to walk away in this situation the police may also charge you with additional crimes such as resisting arrest. The final type of police encounters are encounters that fall in between consensual encounters and full blown arrests. In these situations the police typically have some suspicion that you are involved in criminal activity, but not enough suspicion to arise to probable cause to arrest you for any crime. Accordingly, they approach you to further investigate their suspicions about your engagement in criminal activity. Therefore, these encounters are called "investigatory stops." The following will discuss your rights when the police suspect you are engaged in criminal activity and therefore approach you to conduct an investigatory stop.

In certain situations, the police are allowed to detain you for investigatory purposes without you being able to walk away. In order for the police to conduct an "investigatory stop," the police must be able to point to specific facts about a situation relating to you which give the police a "reasonable suspicion" to believe that you have committed a crime or that you are currently committing a crime. So quite clearly, if you are walking down the street and a police officer does not have any reason to believe that you are currently committing a crime or that you previously committed a crime then they cannot detain you. However, if a crime was just committed down the street from where the police officer sees you walking and you match the description of the suspect of that crime then the police officer can probably detain you to investigate further and therefore you cannot just walk away from the police officer. The reason the officer is able to detain you in the second scenario is because he has a "reasonable suspicion" to believe that you just committed a crime since you are in the area that the crime was committed and you match the suspect's description. In either situation, however, you are not obligated to answer any of the police officer's questions.

How long can the police detain me during an investigatory stop? 
Generally investigatory stops are rather brief encounters. They are designed to last no longer than is reasonably necessary for the police to investigate whatever it is that they stopped you for in the first place. The length of the investigation will vary depending on what the police are investigating, but they are typically restricted by ensuring that the length of the stop is reasonable. Essentially this means that if the police detain you for an unreasonable amount of time then it begins to look more like a full blown arrest rather than a brief investigatory stop and therefore you are entitled to further rights if you are technically under arrest.

Can the police "pat me down" / search me for weapons / "frisk me" during an investigatory stop. 
This depends. If the police have a "reasonable suspicion" to believe that you committed or are currently committing a crime then they can detain you while they investigate that suspicion. If given the circumstances, at the time of the detention, the police officer believes that his safety or others may be in danger then he can "frisk" you (pat you down) in order to check for weapons.

Do I have to answer the questions the police ask? 
No, you never have to answer questions that police ask.

Do I have to show the police my I.D. if they ask me for it? 
This is a difficult question to answer. Generally, you probably do not have an obligation to provide your identification to the police, unless you are driving a vehicle in which case you then have an obligation to provide a driver's license. However, if you are walking down the street and a police officer asks you for identification then you probably do not have a duty to show them. However, you cannot lie to the officer or in any other way mislead the officer about your identity. Not providing your identification upon request could get you in trouble if you choose to evade the officer's questions by giving partial answers. Remember, you never have to answer an officer's questions; however, when you do provide answers they cannot be deceptive, because you could end up being cited or arrested for interfering with a police officer. It may be easier to simply provide your identification and then be on your way to avoid getting yourself into more trouble.

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