Criminal Law FAQs

Can the Police Legally Stop Me, Even if I Have Done Nothing Wrong?

The answer is yes. It is not against the law for one person to stop another in the street and ask him or her questions, and the same rules apply to police officers. They can approach you, ask you questions and even ask to search your belongings.

What the police can legally do during a stop depends largely on what the officer is thinking about you at the time. This may seem unfair, but if the police have a “reasonable suspicion” that you have been involved in a crime — even if you are totally innocent — they can detain you and even frisk you. The officer’s reasonable suspicion must be based on objective facts gleaned from the circumstances, and cannot be based on a mere hunch or general distrust. Police are not allowed to stop a person based solely on race, but racial profiling can be extremely difficult to prove.

Perhaps, for example, you fit the description of someone who has committed a crime nearby. This is a common example of a situation that might give police a reasonable suspicion to stop you. This would likely not be enough evidence for a police officer to arrest you, but it would be sufficient grounds for a stop. Once an officer has a reasonable suspicion that you have been involved in a crime, he can legally do a brief pat down to look for weapons or anything else that might put the officer or others in danger. The police can also legally prevent you from fleeing if they have reasonable suspicion, whereas if they do not, you are free to go.

If it becomes clear that law enforcement intends to detain you, it is a good idea to ask up front what their intentions are. Police are required to give you Miranda warnings if you are in custody, a procedure whose main purpose is to protect your Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. One crucial thing to remember is that regardless of whether you have explicitly been given the Miranda warnings, you always have a right to remain silent. In other words, you never have to questions if you don’t want to. The same is not true for showing identification, however, as many states make it a crime to refuse to show a police officer your ID if he or she asks to see it.

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