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3 Levels of Police-Citizen Interaction You Need to Know

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There are three levels of police-citizen interaction or contacts that are recognized for the purpose of analysis under the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution:  1) mere encounter; 2) investigative detention; and, 3) custodial detention.  Commonwealth v. DeHart, 745 A.2d 633, 636 (Pa.Super.2000).  Each category varies based upon the nature of the intrusion and requires different levels of justification. Id.

Mere Encounter

A "mere encounter" can involve an informal or formal police-citizen interaction with some level of questioning by police.  However, "[t]he hallmark of this interaction is that it carries no official compulsion to stop or respond."  Id.

Because it is generally understood that a person involved in a "mere encounter" is "free to go", no level of legal justification is required in order for the police to engage in this level of contact.

Investigative Detentions & Reasonable Suspicion

Unlike a "mere encounter," an "investigative detention" does require an "official compulsion to stop and respond."  However, the detention is temporary and less coercive conditions than a formal arrest. Id.

A common issue of contention when dealing with police-citizen interactions is whether a mere encounter rises to the level of an investigative detention.

To determine whether an "investigative detention" has occurred, "a court must consider all the circumstances surrounding the encounter to determine whether the demeanor and conduct of the police would have communicated to a reasonable person that he or she was not free to decline the officer's request or otherwise terminate the encounter."  Commonwealth v. Reppert, 814 A.2d 1196, 1201 (Pa.Super.2002).  "Thus, the focal point of our inquiry must be whether, considering the circumstances surrounding the incident, a reasonable [person] innocent of any crime, would have thought he was being restrained had he been in the defendant's shoes." Id.

Where a person is subjected to "investigative detention" and not "free to go," "reasonable suspicion" of criminal activity is required to justify this level of police-citizen contact.

"Reasonable suspicion exists only where the officer is able to articulate specific observations which, in conjunction with reasonable inferences derived from those observations, led him reasonably to conclude, in light of his experience, that criminal activity was afoot and that the person he stopped was involved in that activity."  Commonwealth v. Plante, 914 A.2d 916, 922 (Pa.Super.2006).  Thus, it requires "an objective inquiry [to determine] whether the facts available to the officer at the moment of the [intrusion] warrant a man of reasonable caution in the belief that the action taken was appropriate."  Id.

While "reasonable suspicion" is a relatively low standard, police and prosecutors will try to lower the bar even more.  However, a police officer's training and experience alone and without substantive evidence is nothing more than a hunch and conjecture, which is insufficient legal justification for an "investigative detention."

Custodial Detentions & Probable Cause

A "custodial detention" is a greater intrusion than both a mere encounter and an investigative detention.  "[A] custodial detention occurs when the nature, duration and conditions of an investigative detention become so coercive as to be, practically speaking, the functional equivalent of an arrest."  Commonwealth v. DeHart, 745 A.2d 633, 636 (Pa.Super.2000).  Thus, a "custodial detention" occurs where there is a formal arrest or the functional equivalent of it.

In order to justify a "custodial detention", "probable cause" is required.

"'Probable cause exists where the facts and circumstances within the officer's knowledge are sufficient to warrant a prudent individual in believing that an offense was committed and that the defendant has committed it.'" Commonwealth v. Griffin, 24 A.3d 1037, 1042 (Pa.Super. 2011); quoting Commonwealth v. Stewart, 740 A.2d 712, 715 (Pa.Super. 1999). In determining whether probable cause exists, a court must "consider the totality of the circumstances as they appeared to the arresting officer." Id.

"Probable Cause" is an important standard under criminal law.  In addition to being the legal justification required for an arrest or custodial detention, it is also the standard by which the evidence is evaluated for search warrants and preliminary hearings.


About the Author:

Criminal Defense Attorney Shawn M. Curry has devoted his practice to helping people accused of crimes.  By focusing his practice on this niche area of the law, he is better able to keep up with the evolution of criminal law in an effort to advance the interests of the people he helps in the most meaningful way possible.

If you or someone you care about has been arrested for a crime, contact an experienced professional at Shawn Curry Law today:  717-525-8733.

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