You are walking down the street and a police officer approaches you. He tells you to stop and identify yourself. You are uncomfortable but you comply. He tells you that he needs to perform a search on you. Is that legal and do you have to follow his orders?
In short, yes – police officers can stop you in the street and search you. This type of legal stop or seizure is called a Terry stop, named after the seminal United States Supreme Court case. Under the standards set out under this Supreme Court case, police officers may legally briefly detain a person who they reasonably suspect is involved in criminal activity. While not originally addressed in the first Supreme Court case on the subject, it has subsequently been applied to all traffic stops.
During this type of detention, police officers may also do a limited search of the detainee’s outer garments if they have a reasonable suspicion that the person detained may be armed and dangerous. The pat down must be limited to what is necessary to discover weapons. However, as in all police searches, if there is a contraband item in plain view of what the police officer can see, then the police officer now has probable cause to seize the contraband item and possibly arrest you.
Specific and Articulable Facts
In theory, police officers cannot stop people for no reason at all. They must be able to point to specific and articulable facts that would indicate to a reasonable police officer that a crime has been, is being, or is about to be committed. For example, if a person is peering into windows of a closed shop after hours in the dark and glancing to see if anyone is around, this may indicate that the person is casing the store and considering breaking in. This suspicious behavior rises above the level of a mere hunch.
There is no concrete set of circumstances that points to what a reasonable suspicion is or is not. Reasonable suspicion depends on the totality of the circumstances and is entirely dependent on the situation. Common factors that police officers can point to in articulating reasonable suspicion include:
- The officer’s personal observations
- Information the police officer receives from others
- The time of day or night
- The suspect’s proximity to where a crime was recently committed
- The suspect’s reaction to the police officer’s presence, such as fleeing or attempting to hide
- The officer’s knowledge of the suspect’s prior criminal record
- The level of criminal activity in the area the suspect is at
Traffic Stops Are Terry Stops
As mentioned previously, traffic stops are Terry stops in a different setting. If an officer pulls you over while having reasonable suspicion, he or she can conduct a plain-view search of your vehicle while conducting the traffic stop. If the officer smells, see or otherwise detects the presence of illegal substances, a weapon, or evidence of a crime, he or she may conduct a search of your vehicle without your permission.
What to Do in a Terry Stop
Terry stops can be intense moments for everyone involved. If an officer is stopping you for a Terry stop it means that he or she believes that you have been involved in a crime. Therefore it is very important for you to indicate to the officer that you are treating the situation seriously. An officer will perform a pat down on you in order to determine if you have a weapon. This is for the officer’s safety. When stopped by a police officer performing a Terry stop, remember these practical tips:
- Do not ignore an officer’s request
- While you should not volunteer information needlessly, answer all questions directly, especially for identification
- If the officer wants to pat you down, you cannot refuse
- Be polite and courteous throughout the entire process; Terry stops should not last more than a few minutes
Taking a bad attitude with a police officer is always a bad idea when you are stopped. What started out as a simple stop and frisk can easily escalate into a major incident that involves criminal charges being filed.
If you are involved in a traffic stop with a police officer, here are some practical tips to follow to avoid the situation from escalating:
- Signal your intent to pull over and cooperate by turning on your hazard lights and reducing speed
- Pull over to the right slowly and only when it is safe to do so
- When fully stopped, turn off your engine
- If it is nighttime or at dusk, turn on your interior lights
- Keep your hands visibly on the steering wheel
- Do not make any sudden movements or reach for anything
- Comply with the officer’s orders
- Be polite and courteous
Always remember that for a police officer, every encounter with a citizen has the potential to take a turn for the worse. What they do is to protect themselves. This is not to say that you should do anything that has the potential to violate your rights during a Terry stop, but an encounter with the police is no time to be combative or uncooperative.
Terry Stops Can Be the Precursor to an Arrest; Consult with a North Carolina Criminal Defense Attorney
If you have been arrested following a Terry stop, you will need representation. Being arrested and charged with a crime can throw your entire future into uncertainty. A criminal record can forever change your life, resulting in debt, prison time and may limit your economic opportunities and your entire future.
The best action you can take to protect your future if you have been charged with a crime is to contact an experienced North Carolina criminal defense attorney. Contact the law firm of Remington & Dixon, PLLC. Our attorneys will protect your rights and offer you representation to give you the best chance of a positive outcome in your criminal defense. Protect yourself and protect your future. Contact Remington & Dixon, PLLC at (704) 247-7110 to schedule a free initial consultation.
Brandon double-majored in Political Science and Criminal Justice at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He earned his Juris Doctor from Barry University School of Law in Orlando, Florida. Throughout his career, Brandon has received numerous awards and recognition from his peers and agencies that rate attorneys. A few of these awards are from The National Trial Lawyers: Top 100 Trial Lawyer in 2014, The National Trial Lawyers: Top 40 Under 40 in 2014, Nation’s Top One Percent: National Association of Distinguished Counsel in 2015, Super Lawyers: Rising Stars in 2018 and 2019, and North Carolina Business Magazine: Legal Elite in 2019, among others.