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When Can Officers Stop You on the Street?

In what appears to be a case involving a questionable stop by law enforcement officers, a man in Fort Myers, Florida was recently stopped and issued a ticket for allegedly “walking in the street when there was a sidewalk available.” The incident appears to have quickly devolved into an argument between a citizen who felt his or her rights were being infringed upon and police who felt the citizen was obstructing their investigation. Who is right?

Terry Stops and the Fourth Amendment

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects citizens against “unreasonable” searches and seizures. When police stop an individual – whether that person is in public on foot or in a vehicle – that stop constitutes a “seizure” and must normally be supported by probable cause. However, law enforcement officers may conduct a “Terry stop” without the stop constituting a seizure. (“Terry stops are named for the U.S. Supreme Court case Terry v. Ohio, which first discussed and approved the use of such stops.)

A Terry stop is permissible when the officer has specific and articulable facts which would suggest to the officer that the person being stopped has committed or is in the process of committing a crime. When conducting a Terry stop, officers may briefly stop and question the individual about his or her identity and/or his or her business. In addition, if the officer has specific and articulable facts that would suggest the individual was armed and dangerous, the officer would be able to conduct a brief pat-down or frisk to ensure the individual is not carrying any weapon. If during the pat down the officer felt something that was clearly contraband, this could be seized.

Terry Stops May Not Be Extended Absent Probable Cause or Consent

The amount of time a Terry stop is permitted to last depends on the facts of each situation; however, in no event are these stops to be exceedingly long. If the officer does not have probable cause to believe the individual is engaged in criminal activity, or if the individual does not consent to stay and answer additional questions from the officer, then the individual must be released and told he or she is free to go once the officer has verified the identity of the individual and the officer’s suspicion explained or dispelled.

A Terry stop that is unlawfully extended or lengthy may render any subsequent arrest unlawful and any information or evidence obtained after the stop inadmissible in court. (You do not necessarily have a legal right to resist an unlawful arrest by a police officer.) An experienced Miami criminal defense attorney will need to review the facts of your particular case to determine what legal remedies you have.  Attorney Jeffrey S. Weiner vigorously defends his clients’ constitutional rights and helps clients fight back against criminal charges stemming from abusive or improper police conduct. Contact Jeffrey S. Weiner, P.A. for assistance by calling (305) 670-9919 or by contacting the firm online.

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