If You Are Questioned by the Police: FAQ

If a police officer wants to stop and question you, whether or not you must comply depends on the circumstances and the reasons the officer has for questioning you. This section explores some of the common questions people have about their rights and responsibilities when approached by a law enforcement officer.

What's Below:



If an officer wants to stop me while I'm walking on the street and I know I've done nothing wrong, should I comply?

A police officer may interfere with your freedom of movement only if he has observed unusual activity suggesting that criminal activity is afoot and that you are involved. Even if the officer is mistaken, however, you do not have the right to keep walking. As long as the officer has a good faith belief in your connection to criminal activity, he is allowed to detain you. Stopping you is one thing, however. It doesn't mean that you must answer all of his questions. (See below.)

If You Run Away
It is not unusual for people who are approached by the police to run away. Some courts have recognized that people of color, in particular, have a well-founded fear of unfair treatment at the hands of the police, and that many people will avoid contact with the police not because they are guilty of a crime, but because they reasonably believe that they may be mistreated or unjustly accused. Other courts view evasive behavior as evidence of guilt, however, and allow the police to rely on it as grounds for a detention.

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If I am legally stopped by a police officer on the street, can he search me?

Yes and no. A police officer is permitted to briefly frisk your outer clothing for weapons if the officer reasonably fears for his safety. If a frisk is later challenged in court as being unreasonable, a judge will usually uphold it.

A frisk is different than a search in that a search may be conducted for evidence of a crime or contraband (an illegal item), and may be much more intrusive than a frisk. An officer who frisks you may not search you unless he has good cause to believe that you committed a crime or that you're hiding an illegal item.

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Can a frisk turn into a full-blown search?

When frisking a person for weapons, the police are attuned not only to the feel of possible weapons under clothing, but also to the feel of packaged drugs. Although a frisk may not turn up a weapon, it may turn up a suspicious package which the officer knows is commonly used to carry illegal drugs or some other illegal substance. This suspicion may turn into sufficient cause for a more intensive search of the person's clothing. The lesson here is that a frisk often leads to a legal search. And if a search produces an illegal substance, it may result in an arrest.

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If I am questioned by a police officer after being stopped on the street, do I have to respond to the questions?

The general rule is that you don't have to answer any questions that the police ask you. This rule comes from the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which protects you against self-incrimination. As with all rules, however, there is an exception. Many local and state governments have anti-loitering laws that require people to account for their presence if the police have a reasonable suspicion that they are loitering. Once the police have asked all of their questions about loitering, however, you don't have to answer any others -- such as questions about a crime in the neighborhood.

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Copyright 2004 Nolo