Five Examples of Situations Where a Police Officer Can and Cannot Stop You

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When Police Officer Stops are UnacceptableIf you have ever been stopped by a police officer, you may find yourself wondering, “is this police officer going over the line? Is his search a little too thorough?” It is always acceptable for an officer to ask you for your name and address but further questioning is generally prohibited unless the officer thinks that there is a crime afoot.

There are numerous situations when a police officer may stop and question an individual but it is important to know what the officer can and cannot do.

In Colorado, a police officer may lawfully detain an individual for questioning, if the officer has a reasonable suspicion that the individual has committed, or is about to commit, a crime; AND the purpose of the detention is reasonable; AND the character of the detention is reasonable when considered in light of the purpose.  Generally, an officer cannot expand the scope of an investigation to begin questioning about other crimes or to search for evidence of another crime until they have reasonable suspicion concerning the other crime (so if you are pulled over for a traffic violation, the officer needs reasonable suspicion about the other crime to be able to question you about anything beyond the traffic violation).

Here are five examples of when a detention is acceptable and when it is not acceptable:

  1. An Officer Stops you for a Traffic OffenseWhen an officer stops you for a traffic offense, like speeding, the officer may briefly detain you to investigate the traffic offense. If there is nothing from what you say or do that would make an officer think that there is no other criminal activity afoot, he may not investigate anything other than the traffic stop.
    So if the officer decides that he wants to pop your trunk and start searching the spare tire for drugs, without articulable facts that there were drugs in the trunk, then the officer has gone beyond the scope of the stop and the detention and subsequent search will not be lawful (and will be thrown out by a judge).
    You should also know that officers cannot stop you for any traffic offense. Some offenses, like obstructing traffic, or failing to use your turn signal, are only seen as offenses if you impede the flow of traffic. In these types of situations, if you did not impede the flow of traffic, the officer will not have reasonable suspicion to pull you over and detain you.
  2. An Officer Stops you in an Area Known for Drug Trafficking, with Drugs Near YouSome judges believe that there is reasonable suspicion for an officer to approach you in these situations, some do not. The argument boils down to whether a person in a well known drug area just happens to be walking through the area or whether he is there to do drugs. The question is a factual one, so most judges will find that there is “reasonable suspicion” for the officer to at least question you. At that point, it really depends on what you have on you and what you say as to whether you are going to get arrested.
  3. An Officer is Walking in your General Direction, and You RunIn these situations, the officer has reasonable suspicion to stop you and question you about why you ran. Remember that they can only question you about the running, not about other suspicious activity. So don’t start talking about anything that the officer is not questioning you about. Even if you have not done anything, expect to get arrested, when you turn and run as an officer approaches you. As such, you will get searched incident to the arrest so anything that you have on you will be found.Also remember that that in these situations, you can ask the officer if you are being detained and the reason for being detained. If the officer cannot give you a reason, tell the officer that you would like to leave and ask the officer if you can leave. If the officer says that you are not free to leave, then anything he finds after that point should be suppressed in court.
  4. There is a Roadblock Where the Officers are Questioning All DriversOfficers may use roadblocks for things like sobriety checks, license and registration verification, possession of insurance, and seatbelt usage. Officers will look into the inside of your vehicle during these stops to see if there are any drugs, drug paraphernalia, or tools that are used to commit crimes. In these situations, the officers are not permitted to open your trunk or start searching your vehicle. The officers are also not allowed to start questioning you about anything unrelated to the roadblock. So if the officers created a roadblock to search for drunk drivers, then they are not going to be able to question you about thefts in the area. So it is best to only provide the officer with your drivers license, registration, and insurance, and keep your mouth shut about anything else.
  5. An Officer Stops you in an Area Known for Prostitution, while you are talking to a known prostituteWhen an officer thinks that a crime is about to occur, he may stop you and question you. The detention must be brief. In these situations, it is important to remember that no crime has yet occurred. As a result, the officer will not be able to arrest you at this point (unless you tell the officer something like, “I gave her $20 for services and she didn’t perform.”). So, if you find yourself in this situation, it is best to keep your mouth shut and only give the officer your name and address, if asked. If you tell the police officer about your conversation with the known prostitute, you may find yourself in jail, so it is best to tell the officer that you would like to remain silent on any issue not concerning your name or your address.

Whenever an officer stops you, it is important to remember that the officer is not your friend. He is not talking to you because he likes you and he certainly is not going to help you.  You need to exercise your right to remain silent and not give away any information that might incriminate you. Remember that if you do give up such information, it will not help you, and you will end up behind bars.

The information in this post is for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice or as the creation of an attorney-client relationship. For legal advice, please contact an Attorney.

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Nathaniel has worked in criminal law on both sides of the aisle spending time working for the prosecution as well as the defense. Most recently Nathaniel has represented individuals in violent felonies and drug cases. Prior to this work, Nathaniel handled DWIs, Domestic Violence Cases, Property Crimes, and White Collar Crimes. On the prosecutorial side, Nathaniel has most notably worked in Bosnia helping to prosecute individuals who committed war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Bosnian War from 1993-1995. In particular, Nathaniel helped in the prosecution of military leaders who arranged for the organized murders and rapes of innocent civilians in various towns in Bosnia. Nathaniel is a graduate of the University of Texas School of Law, Northwestern University, and Phillips Exeter Academy. Google Profile: Nathaniel Baca