(For the next 9 weeks I’m attending the Citizen’s Police Academy training at the Police Training Institute of the University of Illinois. I’ll do a series of posts based on what I learn. Here’s the first.)
You’re strolling down the street when a police officer pulls up beside you, gets out of the cruiser and asks you to stop. The officer asks you for your name, address, and date of birth, and then explains that there was an armed robbery nearby and you match the description of the perpetrator. Do you have to remain there? Do you have to answer the officer’s first questions? Can they do a “pat down” search of you?
The answer to the first question is yes – for a reasonable amount of time. You are experiencing a Terry Stop. The name, as sometimes happens with police procedure, comes from a court case (Terry v. Ohio) that was argued before the Supreme Court in 1967. In that case, the court held that if an officer had a reasonable suspicion that a person may have committed a crime, or is planning to commit one, then the officer has a right to investigate. There’s no specific limitation on the time the officer can hold you there, though if it were to extend beyond around fifteen minutes the officer would have to justify it. If the victim was being brought to the location to do a “show up” identification and it took over fifteen minutes because of traffic, it would be reasonable to keep you longer. If you weren’t cooperating, the officer could extend the length of the stop as well.
Which brings us to the second question: would you need to give your correct name, address, and date of birth? The answer again is yes. If you lie about your name or your date of birth and get caught, you’ve committed a felony – obstructing justice. (Now, if the officer asked you about committing a crime, your 5th Amendment rights against self-incrimination come into play, but the basic questions must be answered.)
Would the officer need to read you your Miranda rights? In this case, no. You’re not under arrest, so the Miranda rights don’t apply yet. Different from what you see on television, there is no requirement to read you your rights immediately. In fact, the police usually wait until they start to question you back at the station.
You may also have seen on TV where a suspect asks an officer during questioning if they are under arrest. The officer says no and the suspect walks out. You’re not under arrest with a Terry stop, so could you simply leave? The answer is no. You’d have to remain there until the officer releases you or arrests you. If you left without being released, we’re back to a felony – obstructing a police officer.
The officer doing a pat down search goes to the heart of the Terry decision. In that case, the officer patted down Terry and felt a gun in the pocket of his overcoat. The defense tried to get the search thrown out, but the Court ruled in the officer’s favor. The key was it being a pat down search, which is less invasive. The officer can’t reach into pockets; they can only feel on the outside of clothing. If they feel an illegal weapon, then you could be arrested and a full search would be warranted.
An interesting concept is that some weapons are “per se illegal.” What this means is they are unlawful to “sell, manufacture, purchase, possess, or carry” (which just about covers it). For instance, brass knuckles (in any form) are illegal in this state. Some people tried to get around the law by making them out of ceramic, but that loophole was recently closed. Blackjacks, switchblades, spring-loaded shooting knives, and Ninja throwing stars are also illegal here. Some people erroneously believe there’s a length limit that makes a knife illegal. As long as you’re not carrying a regular knife for the purpose of committing a crime, it’s not illegal in this state. You could walk down the street with a katana blade in your hand and it wouldn’t be per se illegal. However, you’ll be guaranteed of getting a Terry stop if a policeman sees you; they’d want to know why you’re carrying it.
The same rules apply if you’re driving. If a patrol officer has a reasonable suspicion about you, they can pull you over, hold you for a reasonable amount of time, and take your personal information. Because of the likelihood of some people having the same name as others, the date of birth is used to confirm the proper identification.
This rule has been called the greatest gift ever given to law enforcement, but it does have a dark side. It can be abused when linked with racial profiling. There have been problems with this in New York City as well as in other urban and suburban areas, where the preponderance of stops made are of blacks and Hispanics. It’s wrong when the “reasonable suspicion” is based solely on the color of a person’s skin, and that abuse should not be tolerated.
But when properly used, the Terry stop is a valuable tool for police in preventing crime as well as in apprehending criminals.