Friday, April 27, 2012

Knowing Your Rights, Part 4: Stopped on the Street

Welcome to the final installment of this series intended to examine your rights when speaking with police officers in different situations.  In previous installments, we've looked at what you do and don't have to do during a traffic stop, when the police come to your front door, and when you meet with officers at the police station.  This week, we'll take a look at your rights when stopped while walking on the street/sidewalk.

As a general rule, police don't stop people on the street just to have a chat about something.  If you're stopped by an officer while walking down the sidewalk, chances are they suspect that you have either committed a crime, are currently committing a crime, or are about to commit a crime.  This changes the dynamic of your meeting, in that you need to be a little more on guard in this situation than you do when police come to your home.  Similar to a traffic stop, you need to assume you're being investigated in regards to a crime, and subsequently, you need to act accordingly.

Just like in other the other situations we've covered, you're under no obligation to speak with police if they stop you on the street.  You never have to answer an officer's questions other than to give him or her your identifying information.  The big difference when you've been stopped on the street when compared to the other scenarios is that a Supreme Court case called Terry v. Ohio.  The case sets legal precedent that officers can engage in custodial searches of criminal suspects on the street that included a pat down of their outer clothing and the removal of any potential dangers they discover.  If this sounds pretty broad to you, that's because it is.  There are specific circumstances that must be realized in order for the officer to have this power, but they aren't very stringent.  Basically, if the officer has a reasonable suspicion that the suspect may have a weapon on his person, he's allowed to conduct the search.  This "reasonable suspicion" can be founded based on the experience of the officer, the observations he's made, the behavior of the suspect, or any other number of things that don't have very strong roots.

Personally, I feel that Terry represents a pretty significant infringement on the rights of US citizens.  It gives officers a right to a search that is less restrictive than the right the courts have to issue a search warrant.  The reason it exists is noble.  It is intended to make a dangerous job safer.  Police officers must always be vigilant and aware of the presence of a weapon for obvious reasons.  Allowing them this search privilege is intended to reduce their chances of being hurt (or worse) while questioning a suspect.  I don't have any facts or figures as to whether this aim has been successful, but it certainly has good intentions.

The problem, as I see it, is that this "reasonable suspicion" doesn't have to be based in much fact.  It's difficult to get the results of a search conducted subsequent to a Terry stop.  The reason for this is that the discretion of police officers is rarely questioned by the court when the issue involves protecting their safety.  This, again, is a noble theory, but the end result is that a lot of otherwise inadmissible evidence is allowed due to this decision.

What this means for you is that if the officer decides to pat you down when he stops you on the street, you don't have much to say about it.  The best thing to do if this occurs is to simply comply with the orders of the officer and allow the search.  If the rationale for the search is poor, any evidence found can be challenged in court by your Minnesota criminal defense attorney.

One of the biggest issues people face when stopped by police in this fashion is that it's hard to know whether or not they're being detained.  If you face this quandary yourself, this is a great time to break out your "am I free to leave?" question.  We talked about this tool when discussing your rights down at the station, but they hold equally well, here.  If you are not under arrest and are not being detained, you have every right to leave.  If you're not free to leave, then you shouldn't be speaking with the officer.  It's a simple concept that becomes hard to execute when you're in the moment.  Knowing what you do and don't have to say is a huge advantage in this situation.  By determining whether you are free to leave, you will better understand the motives of the officer and be able to more effectively protect your rights.

(Quick aside:  Traffic violations are essentially all Terry stops as well.  What this means is that if an officer has a reasonable suspicion that you are carrying a weapon when he stops you in your vehicle, the same search rules apply.  When dealing with a vehicle, the officer is also authorized to check the passenger compartment for weapons.  This gives him access to your center console, glove box, the compartments in your doors, and under the seat.  If any of these compartments are locked, he no longer has access to them.  The point of giving him access is to take away your access to weapons.  If the compartments are locked, you couldn't exactly quickly grab something from these places.  So, this privilege extends to the vehicle, as well, but is most commonly exercised in on the street stops.)

So, to recap, police stops of pedestrians are usually a little more purposeful than other interactions.  They aren't stopping you to shoot the breeze.  They likely have a suspicion that you were, are, or are going to be involved in the commission of a crime.  You are required to identify yourself to the officer, but are not obligated to say anything else.  This included saying where you are going, where you just came from, what you are doing, or anything of that nature.  If the officer continues to question you after you've told him you'd prefer not to answer any questions, ask the officer if you're free to leave.  If he says you are, take the opportunity to do so.  If he says you are not, then politely tell him that you will not speak to him without a Minnesota criminal defense attorney present.  If he has reasonable suspicion that you have a weapon, he will be able to pat you down and search your clothing.  You should comply with this search and worry about what he may find later.  As with any other situation, it's important to remain polite and courteous with the officer at all times.  Being difficult and disrespectful will get you nowhere.

So, if you are stopped on the street by a police officer and are detained, or if you believe that further investigation may follow, contact a Minnesota criminal defense attorney immediately in order to best serve your interests.  Many times, by contacting a lawyer before being charged with a crime, your lawyer can advise you in a way that will avoid any charges ever being brought.  It's impossible to call a lawyer too soon when dealing this these kind of issues.  Take care of yourself and get someone in your corner making the right decisions.

As always, the content of this website is not intended to act as legal advice or legal advertising, nor does the viewing of it create an attorney/client relationship between the author and the reader.  If you or a loved one are in need of legal advice, contact a licensed attorney in your jurisdiction for specialized legal advice.

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