What Is A Legal Police Stop?
When is it legal for a police officer to stop you? When does it violate your rights?
A police officer may stop a citizen if there is probable cause to believe that the person is either engaging in criminal activity or is about to do so. State v. Kasabucki, 52 N.J. 110, 116-7 (1968). See, United States v. Cortez, 449 U.S. 417-418 (1981); State v. Davis, 104 N.J. 490 (1986). The police officer’s suspicion must be well grounded in some fact which leads him to conclude that a crime is being committed. Id. The United States Supreme Court has defined probable cause to stop a citizen as “fair probability that contraband as evidence of crime will be found”. United States v. Sokolow, 490 U.S. 1, 7 (1989). See, State v. Williams, 251 N.J.Super. 617 (Law Div. 1991).
Police officers may also stop citizens for investigatory purposes even if the officer does not have probable cause to arrest the person. The most important element for a stop is that the officer believes criminal activity is afoot. In State v. Farinich the New Jersey Appellate Division held that, “A police officer may in appropriate circumstances and in an appropriate manner approach a person for the purposes of investigating possibly criminal behavior even though there is not probable cause for arrest. 179 N.J.Super. 1, 5 (App.Div. 1981)(emphasis added). See, Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 22 (1968); State v. Sheffield, 62 N.J. 441, 447 (1973). Further, the Cortez Court held that a police officer must take into consideration all of the circumstances in a given situation before stopping a person. The Court stated, “the detaining officers must have a particularized and objective basis for suspecting the particular person stopped of criminal activity”. Id. at 417-8.
The length of an investigatory stop is also a factor in determining if a stop violated the citizen’s Fourth Amendment rights. It is well settled that a stop must be no longer than is reasonably necessary for the officer to ascertain if the person is engaged in criminal activity. In Florida v. Royer the United States Supreme Court held, “an investigative detention must be temporary and last no longer than is necessary to effectuate the purpose of the stop. Similarly, the investigative methods employed should be the least intrusive means reasonably available to verify or dispel the officer’s suspicion in a short period of time. It is the State’s burden to demonstrate that the seizure it seeks to justify on the basis of a reasonable suspicion was sufficiently limited in scope and duration to satisfy the conditions of an investigative seizure.” 460 U.S. 491, 500 (1983).