Police officers carry a lot of power and wide freedom on how to use it. They often decide whether to start investigations and how those investigations proceed. When it comes to using force, the police also have a wide range of options to choose from legally, though people do have some protections.
Just like you can walk up to a person on the street to speak with them on any topic you choose, so can the police. There are no special rules for when and how police can engage people in public. Things change, though, if the conversation goes from voluntary to compulsory.
Police officers have the unique ability to stop someone from exercising their freedom legally. If you are not free to leave, then you are being detained. You may only be detained if the police have “reasonable suspicion” that you have done something wrong.
Am I Free to Go?
Police can’t simply act on a hunch or feeling that a person may have done something illegal. They must have “reasonable suspicion.” The Supreme Court has ruled that suspicion is reasonable if it is based on “specific and articulable facts” while “taken together with rational inferences from those facts.”
The reasonable suspicion standard requires facts that would lead a reasonable person to think that a suspect has, is, or will commit a crime. Police must then act in a reasonable manner and for a reasonable length of time, or the stop may become a violation of the person’s rights.
Can I See Some ID?
Police can ask anyone for a government-issued ID (like a driver’s license) at any time, but they can legally demand it only in limited situations. In some states, there are “stop-and-identify” statutes that let police demand ID from suspects, and to arrest suspects who refuse to identify themselves. Reasonable suspicion of a crime is still required for police to have a legal right to that information.
These rules all discuss what the law requires from the police. As we all know, sometimes the police do not follow these rules. Sometimes, they even break them on purpose. If that happens, federal law allows people to sue the police for the violations.