It is not uncommon for a person to happen upon a law enforcement officer. He or she may be stopped by the law enforcement officer and asked questions. If a person runs into this situation, it is important that he or she understands his or her rights.
It is not uncommon for a law enforcement officer to try to use a high-crime area as justification to stop random people found in the area. Studies show that Terry stops are more common to occur in high-crime areas and areas where there is a higher proportion of minority individuals. Terry stops are brief stop and frisk encounters in which a law enforcement officer has the right to briefly detain a person to question him or her and to pat down the individual if the law enforcement officer has a reasonable suspicion that the suspect has committed a crime and that he or she is armed and dangerous.
Justification for a Stop
Being present in a high-crime area by itself does not provide a sufficient basis for a stop of this nature. One court held that a stop was not justified when a suspect was standing in an alleyway in a high-crime area and put something in his pocket as law enforcement officers stopped. Likewise, a person who was stopped while walking his bike at night was part of a case in which such detention was found to be unwarranted since this act alone did not justify any particular suspicion.
However, a high-crime area is one factor that law enforcement can consider to make a stop of this nature. For example, if the suspect takes flight upon seeing a law enforcement officer, the officer may be able to conduct a brief investigative stop.
Unprovoked flight goes beyond a person’s right to simply ignore police. In the case just described, the court found that the subsequent search was illegal because the suspect did not run and there were no other factors to support the stop.
Recent Criminal Activity
The law enforcement officer can consider if the area has a history of crime such as shootings and drug crimes. However, this cannot be the sole basis for a stop. In one case, two men pulled up to a location in one vehicle and then get out and into a different vehicle. When a law enforcement officer pulled beside the first vehicle, he ordered the occupants out. Drugs were found in the car. However, the court found that the detention was not justified because all the law enforcement officers knew was that the suspect left one vehicle and got into another vehicle. This action looked at objectively does not correspond to criminal activity since many people innocently get out of one vehicle and into another one.
Flight and Evasion
The courts tend to side with law enforcement instead of the defendant in a criminal case when there is additional evidence to support a brief detention by police. Officers on foot patrol are trained at recognizing criminal behavior. If they see someone who looks away or runs away when a law enforcement officer is seen or is approaching the suspect. When a defendant puts something in his or her pants pockets when seeing police, this factor may also be considered. A simple frisk can often make a law enforcement feel more comfortable since he or she can briefly check the suspect so that he or she is not worried about his or her own safety or that of others.
Individuals who believe that their Terry Stop or investigatory stop was not justified under the circumstances may choose to discuss this information with a criminal defense lawyer. A lawyer may explain the defendant’s rights and challenge any unconstitutional stops.
Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer. For specific technical or legal advice on the information provided and related topics, please contact the author.
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