Police generally stop someone for one of three reasons: (1) Probable Cause; (2) Reasonable Suspicion; and (3) Consent.
Probable Cause: If a police officer has a good reason to believe that you committed a crime, the officer can stop you, arrest you, and search you. The officer does not need to be 100% sure that you committed a crime, just that there is an “honest and strong suspicion.” That is probable cause.
Example: Cops get a 911 call that a small man just robbed a bank. When officers get to the bank they see a man matching the description of the robber, with a trench coat, mask, beanie, and cash falling out of his backpack as he runs to an illegally parked car. Based on those facts, the cops have probable cause (an honest and strong suspicion) to stop him, search him, and arrest him for robbery. While cops are not 100% sure that he robbed the bank, they have a pretty good (and honest) suspicion that he did.
Legal Tips: If police arrest you, do not answer any questions! Exercise your right to remain silent. Ask for an attorney immediately. If you think you have a great defense, do not talk, REMAIN SILENT. If you think you are innocent and talking to the cops will set them straight, don’t talk, REMAIN SILENT. You will not beat a case in an interrogation room or the backseat of a police car. JUST REMAIN SILENT until your lawyer arrives.
Reasonable Suspicion: If police do not quite have enough evidence for probable cause, but something is still suspicious enough that cops need to investigate, the law allows police to briefly detain you to ask you questions to see if there is probable cause or if you are innocent.
Example: Cops get a 911 call that a small man just robbed a bank. When officers get to the scene, they see a small man somewhat matching the description of the robber briskly walking away from the scene. No doubt, this person is not as suspicious as the first example, but there is enough suspicion to justify stopping him to ask him questions. Police will ask him what he is doing, where he is going, and where he is coming from, in order to determine if they should arrest him or let him go. Cops use reasonable suspicion stops to either build up to probable cause or confirm innocence. It should be noted that if police stop you based ONLY on reasonable suspicion, AND they believe you may have a weapon, police can pat-search you (over your clothes) for weapons.
Legal Tips: If an officer detains you briefly to ask you questions relating to a crime, do not answer any questions. Remember that a reasonable suspicion stop is used to either build up to probable cause or confirm innocence. This means if a cop has enough evidence to arrest you based on probable cause, he will. The very fact that you are only being detained strongly indicates that probable cause either does not exist or is weak. Do not help the cop build probable cause against you. You may not be free to leave if cops are detaining you, but you certainly DO NOT have to (and should not) answer any of the officers’ questions.
Consent: If police do not have probable cause or reasonable suspicion to stop someone, nothing stops a cop from just walking up to someone to “shoot the breeze.” This is called a consensual encounter.
Example: A cop sees four college-age kids in a park just chilling. The officer does not have probable cause that something illegal is happening and neither is there reasonable suspicion relating to any crime. However, the officer has “a hunch” that these four students are up to no good. While there is no evidence to support that “hunch,” he can legally walk up to the students to ask them questions like, “Can I search you backpack?” “What are you guys up to?” “Do you have anything illegal on you?” and “What’s your name?”
Legal Tips: While cops can legally ask you those questions, you DO NOT HAVE TO ANSWER ANY OF THEM. Kindly and respectfully say, “I exercise my right to remain silent.” You should also know that if an officer walks up to you to ask you questions when there is no probable cause or reasonable suspicion, you do not have to stick around to talk. Not only can (and should) you not answer any of the officer’s questions, but feel free to just walk away. If you are unsure whether you are being arrested, detained, or merely consenting to police questioning, ask the officer to clarify so you know what to do. Lastly, officers may ask to search your car, backpack, wallet, etc.…DON’T CONSENT. They may say something like, “If you have nothing illegal in your backpack, why not let me look inside?” NO. Whether you are clean or are carrying contraband, don’t give consent. In all likelihood, if an officer asks for your permission to search something, it is because the officer NEEDS your consent. If the officer didn’t need your permission, he wouldn’t waste his time asking you. Moral of the story is don’t give consent.
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