Question 3: During a recent community meeting with UMW students, the police chief said that a person does not have to continue talking to a police officer or answer his questions if the person is not doing anything wrong. However, I don't feel like that's advice that will save me from further trouble. Can he elaborate on what he thinks the best advice is for me? Can I keep on walking? Do I have to stop to answer him? I think giving the police chief a forum to clearly say what he wanted to say is much better than putting him on the spot.
This question has been answered by Chief David Nye: I appreciate the opportunity to clarify my answer. It is best not to ignore an officer if he approaches or speaks to you, as you will have no way of knowing what the officer is investigating at the time. However, I will address this in more detail by describing “Terry Stops” and consensual encounters. I had the impression the person asking the question was describing a consensual encounter but I should have clarified this.
1. An officer has the right to stop a person if the officer has a reasonable suspicion that a crime has been committed, is being committed, or is about to be committed. (“Terry Stop” Terry v. Ohio, 1968)
The person being stopped may have done nothing wrong but nevertheless may be legally detained for a reasonable amount of time. The officer must identify himself or herself as a police officer and may make reasonable inquiries. The officer may also conduct a carefully limited search of the outer clothing in an attempt to discover weapons if the officer has a reasonable belief that the person may be armed and dangerous.
It is important to note that the person being stopped may have done nothing wrong but nevertheless may be legally detained for a reasonable amount of time.
2. A consensual encounter with a law enforcement officer is not considered a stop or search and therefore, is not entitled to Fourth Amendment protection. A consensual encounter generally arises when an officer approaches a citizen to inquire about an incident that concerns public safety or the citizen’s safety. During these encounters, there is usually minimal contact with the officer and the citizen is free to leave or end the conversation at any time.
If a person has any question concerning what type of encounter they are having with a police officer, they may ask (I suggest in a respectful manner) “Officer, am I being detained?” and if the officer affirms they are, they may ask why? or for what? This is a perfectly legitimate way for a person to assert their rights under the Fourth Amendment (or to be free from unlawful searches and seizures).
If the officer indicates that they are being detained, the person MAY NOT walk away. Even if they don’t agree with the officer, the officer is performing a duty to confirm or dispel the reasonable suspicion that they are in some way connected to an illegal activity.
If an encounter with a police officer makes you uncomfortable, you may request to speak to the officer’s supervisor at the scene of the encounter, or you may call Police HQ immediately after the encounter and ask to speak to the officer’s supervisor.