Following an important 1976 decision by the New York Court of Appeals called People v. DeBour, there are four basic levels of police encounters in New York State. These rules apply in both the criminal and civil context.
Level 1 - Request for Information
As long as a police officer has an objectively credible basis to approach an individual -- even if it is not indicative of criminality -- the officer may ask the individual for information. The officer may not stop, detain, search or frisk the individual.
Level 2 - Common Law Right of Inquiry
Once a police officer has a founded suspicion as to some level of criminal activity (such as an anonymous tip regarding a criminal matching the individual's identity), the officer may undertake a formal inquiry of the person. The officer may request permission to search the individual, but the officer is not permitted to forcibly detain or pursue the individual. The individual remains free to leave.
Level 3 - Reasonable Suspicion to Stop
An officer can forcibly stop, detain and pursue a person when the officer has reasonable suspicion that the person has committed, is committing or is about to commit a felony or misdemeanor. In addition, if the officer has a reasonable belief that the individual is armed and dangerous, the officer can conduct a frisk. The officer is not permitted to frisk for evidence.
Level 4 - Probable Cause to Arrest
Probable cause is information sufficient to warrant a person of reasonable caution in the belief that the defendant has committed a crime, or that the fruits, evidence or instrumentalities of crime can be found at a given location. If a police officer has probable cause with respect to an individual, the officer may arrest that person on the street without an arrest warrant and may search the individual incident to arrest without a search warrant.
If you have questions about a police encounter, please contact us.