When Is a Police Encounter an Investigative Stop?
The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution protects you from unreasonable government searches and seizures. The Ohio Constitution provides similar protections. Depending on the circumstances, those protections may apply when you are confronted by the police. The law generally recognizes three types of interactions with police officers: consensual encounters, investigative stops, and arrests. The type of encounter you experience significantly impacts your rights and obligations, and in some cases, your criminal prosecution.
Q: What is an investigative stop?
A: An investigative stop occurs when a police officer briefly detains you because of a “reasonable suspicion,” based upon explainable, objective facts that you are engaged in criminal activity. A modest amount of suspicion is enough for a brief stop, but a vague hunch is not. Because an investigative stop is a “seizure” under the Fourth Amendment, it must be “reasonable.”
Q: Are there limits to what a police officer can do during an investigative stop?
A: Yes. The stop must be no longer and no more intrusive than necessary to confirm or allay the officer’s “reasonable suspicion” of criminal activity. In most situations, a stop of several minutes is acceptable. If you are stopped while driving, the police may require you to step out of your car, but the same limitations regarding the length and scope of the investigative stop still apply. A police stop exceeding the time needed to handle the matter for which the stop was made violates the Fourth Amendment's shield against unreasonable seizures. In other words, once the "reasonable suspicion" of criminal activity underlying the stop has ended, the police cannot continue to detain you.
Q: How can I tell if I am involved in an investigative stop?
A: If you are confronted by more than one officer, or if an officer displays a weapon or tries to exert physical control over you, then you very well may be involved in an investigative stop. Also, courts have held that, if a police officer takes and keeps your driver’s license or identification card, you have been “seized” under the Fourth Amendment. If you are stopped by a police officer and are unsure of the reason, you may ask, “Am I free to leave?” If the answer is “no,” you are, at the least, involved in an investigative stop.
Q: Is a police officer allowed to search me during an investigative stop?
A: An officer may conduct a limited frisk of your outer clothing for concealed weapons when he or she has a reasonable, explainable belief that you are armed. That standard is relatively low, but the officer must have more than a mere hunch, and may not conduct such searches according to a blanket law enforcement policy. Even so, “stops” and “frisks” frequently occur together. Under the Fourth Amendment, however, a frisk is a “search” and the reasonable suspicion necessary to justify an investigative stop does not automatically allow an officer to search you. In other words, depending on the circumstances, an officer may have “reasonable suspicion” to briefly stop you without having enough reason to frisk you.
Q: What about my Fourth Amendment rights?
A: If you have been involved in an investigative “stop” or “frisk,” then your Fourth Amendment rights do apply. If a court decides that the police lacked the required “reasonable suspicion” to conduct a “stop” or a “frisk,” then incriminating evidence the police obtained as a result of those actions may not be admissible in court.
Q: Should I reveal my personal information during an investigative stop?
A: Yes. If the police have “reasonable suspicion” to conduct an investigative stop, you may be found guilty of a separate criminal offense if you do not provide your name, address, or date of birth when asked to do so. That remains true even if you were not actually involved in criminal activity, so long as the “reasonable suspicion” was warranted. However, if your age or date of birth is an element of an offense you are suspected of having committed, such as underage drinking, you do not have to provide that information. You should never provide false information to such questions, as doing so could lead to additional criminal charges.
Q: Must the police read me my “Miranda rights” during an investigative stop?
A: No. Police officers do not have to read you your “Miranda rights” during an investigative stop. You cannot determine the type of interaction you are having solely based on whether the police have informed you of your “Miranda rights.”
Q: What should I do during an investigative stop?
A: It is a good idea to cooperate with police requests during an investigative stop, but you do not have to answer questions from the police beyond requests for your identifying informaiton, as explained above. Also remember that what you say during an investigative stop may be used against you. Being aware of the police officer's limited authority to briefly "stop" and "frisk" you is an important part of understanding your constitutional rights. However, it is not a good idea to antagonize or physically resist law enforcement officers during an investigatory stop, even if you believe that your Fourth Amendment rights have been violated. If you believe that there has been such a violation, you may want to ask for the officer's name and badge number.
This “Law You Can Use” column was provided by the Ohio State Bar Association. It was prepared by Assistant State Public Defender Jeremy J. Masters of the Office of the Ohio Public Defender.