People often wonder whether they have to talk to a police officer when approached or confronted. There are many ways an officer may approach you. You should be aware, police officers may briefly detain an individual who they have reasonable suspicion to believe is involved in a crime. Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 27 (1968). A police officer has the legal right/power to stop and detain an individual if he/she “reasonably suspects that the person apprehended is committing or has committed a criminal offense.” Arizona v. Johnson, 555 U.S. 323, 326 (2009).  An officer may also briefly stop any “suspicious individual, in order to determine his[her] identity or to
maintain the status quo momentarily while obtaining more information.” Adams v. Williams, 407 U.S. 143, 146 (1972). Unless there is a legitimate basis to detain an individual, the person approached may not be detained but may refuse to cooperate and go on his/her way.

In assessing the reasonableness of a “Terry” stop, the courts examine whether the facts warranted the intrusion on the individual’s Fourth Amendment rights, and whether the scope of the intrusion was reasonably related to the circumstances which justified the interference in the first place. State v. Boteo-Flores (Ariz., 2012).

What is reasonable suspicion?   Reasonable suspicion requires a particularized
and objective basis for suspecting that a person is engaged in criminal activity. State v. O’Meara, 198 Ariz. 294, 9 P.3d 325 (2000). Officers cannot act on a mere hunch but if an officer, based on his/her prior training and experience, can “perceive and articulate meaning in given conduct which would be wholly innocent to the untrained observer” Brown v. Texas, 443 U.S. 47(1979), then the detention will be upheld.

As to traffic stops, if the officer articulates a valid reason such as a violation of the traffic code, even if the officer is intentionally targeting someone, the stop will usually be upheld if viewed objectively as justified. Ohio v. Robinette, 519 U.S. 33, 38 (1996) (quoting Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806, 813 (1996)). But if it is found that this pretext stop was not objectively valid, the reasons behind the officer’s actions can be looked at. Absent a reasonable suspicion to detain you for the purpose of issuing a warning or citation, the officer cannot legally detain you.

Bottom line, if an officer stops you on the street or is done issuing you a traffic ticket, politely ask if you are free to go and if the officer says “yes”, then leave and do not agree to answer any further questions. If the officer says you are not free to leave but are being  detained, do not talk, just provide your full name or identification, and politely ask to call your lawyer.

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