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What to Expect if You Are Stopped by Police

On a general basis, a police officer is permitted to stop and detain a member of the public for violating a traffic law, suspicion of criminal action, or to arrest the party for a crime. Once the person is detained by police, that person will usually be subject to questioning. A police officer can detain a person and ask him or her questions during that detention without technically arresting the person. The grounds for making this detention and questioning legally permissible stems from a "Terry stop."

What Is a Terry Stop?

A Terry stop is performed when a police officer observes suspicious activity. The stop allows the police officer to detain a suspect, temporarily, to ask that the suspect identify him or herself, and to interrogate the party regarding activity that caused suspicion. Terry stops are restricted to investigation into suspicious activity. If an officer detains a suspect to ask questions about further matters, then the initial Terry stop detention may escalate into a formal arrest.

For the protection of the police officer, he or she is permitted to conduct a frisk of the suspect detained on a Terry stop for weapons. That frisk is limited to the outside of the suspect's clothing in a pat down. If something is detected during the pat down that might be a weapon, the officer can remove the weapon from the suspect and conduct further investigation and examination. But the officer may not take any items from a suspect's clothing or pockets that are not perceived to be weapons.

How Is a Formal Arrest Different?

An arrest requires probable cause that a criminal suspect has committed an offense. An arrest means that a party does not reasonably expect that he or she has the freedom to leave the custody of an officer. If a suspect is not permitted to leave an area of scene for a long duration, that suspect may be deemed to be held under arrest. There is no formal requirement that the words "under arrest" or "arrest" be used to trigger a formal arrest. Other indicia of a formal arrest include a suspect being:

  • handcuffed
  • locked in the back of a police vehicle
  • restrained from leaving a scene

A Terry stop, on the other hand, can be performed by a police officer based upon a lower standard of reasonable suspicion that a party has been conducting criminal activities. The Terry stop is not the equivalent of a formal arrest, despite the fact that the suspect is not permitted to leave during questioning and investigation of the police officer during a short period and regarding a limited scope of information. A Terry stop may include questions such as:

  • What is your name?
  • Where do you reside?
  • Why are you here?
  • What were you doing?