Law enforcement officers have the right to stop people based on reasonable suspicion that a person has committed, is committing or is about to commit a crime. Law enforcement officers do not need full probable cause to make this stop. A reasonable suspicion standard is less than the full probable cause standard. How much less is a matter of debate and has produced many court cases. Many courts have attempted to define what reasonable suspicion means (words like articulable suspicion or articulable reasonable suspicion are used), however it generally boils down to the totality of the circumstances – the whole picture must be analyzed. Each case is different. Factors the court may weigh:
- officers observation of conduct considering his or her training and experience and whether the conduct appears to be criminal
- information the officer receives from other officers, citizens, or informants
- the time of day or night
- is the area a high crime area or low crime area
- was the suspect close to where a crime was recently committed or to a home, car, or business where criminal activity may be taking place
- is the suspect a stranger to the area or does the suspect have regular ties to the community
- officers knowledge of the suspects prior criminal record and activities -are the prior criminal offenses relevant to the crime the suspect may be committing
- did the suspect flee from the scene of a crime
- did the suspect’s actions match factors set out in a profile of criminal behavior -behavioral traits associated with the commission of a particular crime
How long should the stop last? The general rule is that anything longer than 20 minutes is probably too long. However, as the seriousness of the crime being investigated increases so does the courts leeway for duration increases. Normally an officer can confirm or dispel his suspicion of criminal activity within a few minutes after the stop (i.e., smell of alcohol, observation of drug paraphernalia inside the vehicle, etc.). If the officer’s suspicion of criminal activity is not confirmed then the officer should allow the suspect to go immediately. If the officer’s suspicions of criminal activity are confirmed (probable cause is found) by making the stop, he has the power and authority to make a full arrest based on probable cause depending on the seriousness of the crime. This is called articulable reasonable suspicion “ripening” into full probable cause.
What can the officer do during the stop?
- A law enforcement officer that has lawfully stopped a vehicle has the authority to order the driver and the passengers out of the vehicle or the officer could order the driver and passengers to remain in the vehicle.
- Law enforcement officers are allowed to use reasonable force, including touching or grabbing a person, however if officers use more force than is reasonably necessary, a court could determine that the seizure was really an arrest and this must be justified by probable cause.
- Blocking a suspect’s car with police cars has been held ok (force must be necessary)
- Drawing a gun on a suspect for the officer’s protection has been held ok (force must be necessary)
- Making a suspect lie on the ground has been held ok (force must be necessary)
- Law enforcement officers can ask questions of the suspect that they have lawfully stopped, although the suspect does not have to answer the questions.
- Moving a suspect a short distance to another place is allowed as long as it is necessary for safety or security reasons.
- Handcuffing a suspect may be allowed if the suspect represents a flight or security risk.
- Witnesses may be brought to observe the suspect or it is possible that the officer may move the suspect a short distance to the scene of a crime so that the witness can see the suspect, as long as this does not take too long.
- Using a drug dog to sniff a vehicle is ok just as long as it does not take too long (time waiting for the dog to arrive).
- Officers are allowed to check for outstanding warrants and other related information through the computer (DCI) as long as it does not take too long.
- Officers are allowed to check the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) status of the vehicle and driver as long as it does not take too long.
- Frisking a person after making a stop is okay as long as the officer has a reasonable suspicion that the person has a weapon and presents a danger to the officer or others.