In an ideal world, police would have access to all the facts before they did anything. However we don’t live in that world, so sometimes things get messy.
The Three Levels of Suspicion
In law enforcement there are three levels of suspicion that we operate in. These three levels dictate what we can and cannot do under the law.
Reasonable Suspicion to Start
Before an officer can do anything with legal authority, he must have reasonable suspicion that somebody has committed a crime, or is about to commit a crime. Until then, he has no more power than anyone else, and is bound by the same rules as anyone else. Reasonable suspicion is defined as having sufficient evidence to make a reasonable officer observing the same circumstances suspect that a crime has occurred, or is about to occur.
For example, if the officer sees somebody running down the street in a jogging suit listening to an iPod, he’s got squat. If an officer sees somebody running down the street in regular clothes with an iPod in his hand, he’s got reasonable suspicion.
No, You Can’t Leave
With reasonable suspicion, officers are authorized to physically detain the person found in suspicious circumstances, in order to prevent the crime from happening, or prevent them from escaping after committing the crime. The officer can compel you to identify yourself, and if it is reasonable for him to suspect that you may be armed, he can also conduct a frisk of your person, for obvious signs of weaponry.
A “Terry” frisk, as this is called, is limited to a check for weapons with a brushing feel of the outside of clothes. So, if you’ve got a gun logo on your shirt, a belt clip (like from a pocket knife) showing outside your pocket, you’re acting aggressively towards the officer, etc, you can be frisked.
A Detention Is Temporary
During a detention, you are not free to leave, but this is only temporary, and may only be maintained long enough for the officer to investigate the crime he suspects you have just commited, or were just about to commit. The law does not clearly define a limit, as it depends on the circumstances of that particular case, but states that it must be reasonable under the circumstances.
If he suspects that you may have just robbed the store you just ran out of, then the detention could only last the few minutes it would take to check in with the store employees.
If he suspects you were the guy who reportedly robbed a store on the other side of town an hour ago, then the detention could last an hour or more, while he coordinates investigative efforts with officers with more information, arranged to have a witness come and look at you to confirm or deny that suspicion, etc.
Regardless of how unreasonable you think it is, reasonableness is for a judge and/or jury to decide, after the fact.
Reasonable Suspicion Is A Necessary Evil
While many people detained under reasonable suspicion are innocent, officers must be able to operate with this low level of confirm information, because the vast majority of the time, officers will have very little information about the offense or the suspect immediately following the offense, and even less, if the detention is an attempt to prevent an offense.
If officers were not authorized to detain people under this level of suspicion, criminals would basically get away every single time. The problem is that many officers fail to treat the suspected person with the appropriate level of respect due to someone detained for nothing more than suspicion, and likewise fail to apologize for the imposition, when evidence supporting their suspicion is not found. Some are just jerks, but most academies train officers not to appologize. I think that is stupid, but they don’t ask me.
Probable Cause For Enforcement
Probable cause is the level of suspicion that allows officers to conduct searches, issues citations, and make arrests. Probable cause is defined as having sufficient evidence for a reasonable officer observing the same evidence to believe that the suspect probably committed the offense, or was about to commit an offense. In other words, there is plenty of evidence to show that you might have done something, but maybe not enough to convince a jury.
Arrest Is Not A Conviction
In the end, unless you plead guilty or no contest, the state must convince a jury that there’s basically nothing short of a black helicopter conspiricy that could account for their evidence in a way where you weren’t guilty ( AKA: Guilt neyond a reasonable doubt). Otherwise, the only people who will know about your run-in with the law will be the people directly involved in your case, law enforcement, and whoever you choose to infom.
Have you ever been detained for investgation? How long did it last, and why? Ever get hooked-up, but ultimately have your case dismissed?