Fri 11 Nov, 2022 Criminal Defense

Can the Police Stop You for No Reason?

The police cannot stop you without having sufficient reason to do so. Under the United States Constitution (as interpreted by the United States Supreme Court), the police must have at least reasonable suspicion to believe an individual has committed—or is committing—a crime to lawfully stop them to conduct a brief, investigatory investigation.

For the police to arrest someone, they must have probable cause that the person has committed a crime. Probable cause is a higher degree of proof than reasonable suspicion. In other words, when the police have reason to suspect that a person has—or is—committing a crime, they can briefly detain the individual to do more investigation so they can determine whether they have probable cause to conclude he or she committed a crime. If they discover more information that provides them with probable cause that the person committed a crime, then the police can lawfully arrest the individual. On the other hand, if the police have probable cause to arrest the person when they first encounter him or her, the police can immediately put the individual under formal arrest. If the police arrest a person without probable cause, they can be liable to pay financial damages to the arrestee.

For example, let’s say the police are notified of a 911 call where a person says that someone on foot, who was wearing a yellow jacket and blue jeans, fired a gun while at a particular intersection. The police respond to the location, and they see a person on foot matching that description—the person is wearing a yellow jacket and blue jeans. The police would have reasonable suspicion to briefly detain the person to conduct more investigation. The police could question the suspect, and they could also pat the person down to look for weapons. Under Terry v. Ohio—a landmark United States Supreme Court case—the police are allowed to “stop and frisk” people if they have reasonable suspicion that the person is armed and involved in a crime. In this example, if the police were to frisk the suspect and then find a gun, they would arguably have probable cause to believe he is the person who fired the gun. Therefore, they could then lawfully arrest that individual.

The police sometimes put suspects in handcuffs even if they only have reasonable suspicion and not probable cause to arrest. Typically, the police will put an individual in handcuffs—even if they ultimately don’t arrest the person—when he or she is suspected of doing something violent or there is a lot of commotion on the scene and the police need to handcuff all suspects to control the safety of the scene. 

New York Rules for Police Encounters

New York State standards for police encounters are more stringent than the rules created by the United States Supreme Court. In other words, when it comes to police encounters, New York guarantees its people more rights than the U.S. Constitution! New York puts police encounters into four categories, otherwise known as the “DeBour levels.” 

Level 1

In New York, the police must have an objective, credible reason to approach someone, even if they don’t plan to arrest the individual or otherwise suspect the person of criminal activity. This is known as a Level 1 encounter. With a Level 1 encounter, the police may approach a person to request information. 

For instance, if the police see a person asleep in a car that is in a parking spot, they may have a credible reason to approach the individual The police may credibly want to check in on the person to make sure he or she is okay and does not have a medical issue. 

With Level 1 encounters, the police are not allowed to ask pointed—or accusatory—questions. The police cannot ask a person to consent to a search or otherwise make people believe they are the subject of an investigation.

Level 2

A Level 2 encounter occurs when the police have founded suspicion that a person has committed a crime, but the evidence does not rise to the level of reasonable suspicion. Consequently, the police are not able to lawfully detain the individual Although the police cannot legally detain the person, they may ask the person pointed, accusatory questions.

For example, let’s say the police receive a call saying that people are currently loitering outside of a building selling drugs. The police arrive at the building and see a few people loitering. The police received no description from the complainant and don’t have reasonable suspicion to detain the people they see sitting around, but the police may arguably have founded suspicion that the people loitering had been selling drugs. Accordingly, the police could lawfully ask them pointed questions such as, “what are you doing here,” “do you live in this building,” “We’ve heard that people are selling drugs right here,” etc. If during this encounter, the police see evidence of a crime, then they may be able to escalate the encounter to Debour Level 3 or 4.

Level 3

A Level 3 encounter requires reasonable suspicion and warrants a brief investigatory detention. Level 3 encounters generally follow the parameters outlined by the United States Supreme Court in its interpretation of the 4th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In other words, DeBour Levels 1 and 2 create a lower floor of legal protections for New Yorkers, while DeBour levels 3 and 4 mirror the protections already provided by the U.S. Constitution.

Level 4

A Level 4 encounter requires probable cause and warrants a full arrest. As discussed above, DeBour Levels 3 and 4—on a New York State level—follow the legal protections already provided by the federal government through the United States Supreme Court’s interpretation of the 4th Amendment of the United States Constitution. 

What Happens if the Police Unlawfully Stop You?

If you have been unlawfully stopped by the police, then you may have remedies in both civil and criminal court. In civil court, you may potentially sue the police for violating your rights against unlawful seizure. In criminal court, you may be able to suppress any evidence that was obtained because of the unlawful police conduct. In other words, the evidence the police obtained as a result of your unlawful seizure would not be able to be used against you in court.

Get the Help You Need – Contact Our Office Today

If you were unlawfully stopped by the police, contact NYC criminal defense lawyer Cody Warner today. He offers free consultations, and he can assess your case to determine any remedies you may have against the government.