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Police Powers – When Can the Police Stop Us?

Find out what powers the police have when dealing with the public.

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Police officers carry a large amount of power and wide discretion 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. The people do have legal protections from the police. Some of those rights are federally recognized and cover all Americans, while others vary from state to state.

Initiating Contact

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. They may do so to start an investigation because they think someone is acting suspicious, or for just about any purpose. Things change, though, if the interaction goes from voluntary to compulsory.

Police officers have the unique ability to stop someone from exercising their freedom legally. An officer must follow certain rules if he or she orders someone to remain in an area or pulls over their car. If you are not free to leave, you are being detained, and you may only be detained if the police have “reasonable suspicion” that you have done something wrong.

Am I Free to Go?

Police officers may legally force someone to stop and stay with them while they perform an investigation if they have reasonable suspicion. Police can’t simply act on a hunch or feeling that a person may have done something illegal. 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 or circumstances that would lead a reasonable person to believe 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 arrestee’s rights.  People who are detained by the police have the legal right to remain silent and not answer any questions.  Detentions are only allowed to take place for a “reasonable” length of time.

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 allow police to 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.

Scott D. Cosenza, Esq.

Scott D. Cosenza, Esq. is Legal Affairs Editor of and Scott writes extensively on legal issues and is the Policy Director for One Generation Away.

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