One of today’s hot topics is the NYPD Stop and Frisk program. This issue even became a debate topic between President-Elect Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. While some argue that this program has resulted in reduced crime rates, others argue that this program has led to many constitutional rights violations. In light of this controversial program, it can be helpful to understand the laws for streets encounters and their implications. When approached by a police officer on the streets what does an officer have the authority to do? What are your rights? In New York, there are four basic levels of street encounter. Each of these levels of encounter requires different amounts of evidence and information. These levels are called DeBour Levels after the 1976 People v. DeBour New York State court of appeals decision.
Level 1: At this level of street encounter an officer may request information from an individual. This information may be related to your destination, your address, or something unusual that you are carrying. This level of encounter is intended to be brief and non-threatening. An officer may do things such as approach a stopped vehicle or say “stop” given that it is not said in a forceful tone. An officer may not ask to search a person or vehicle, and they may not lead an individual to believe they are suspected of a crime. In order to legally justify this level of street encounter, an officer must have objective credible reason. This reason does not have to be suggestive of criminality.
Level 2: At this level of street encounter an officer has common law right of inquiry. An officer can ask you pointed questions that may lead an individual to believe they are suspected of a crime. An officer may request to search an individual, however, they may not pursue an individual at this level. In order to justify this level of street encounter, an officer must have a reasonable suspicion involving criminality.
Level 3: At this level of street encounter an officer must have reasonable suspicion. This means that an officer must have witnessed behavior that leads him to reasonably suspect a person of criminality. This may also included instances where an informant tips an officer off to a person’s criminal activity, and an officer is able to corroborate non-criminal details of the individual. If reasonable suspicion exists an officer has the right to approach the individual and may frisk for weapons. At this level of encounter, an officer may, given a good reason, order an individual to lie on the ground or handcuff them. They may also pursue and forcibly detain.
Level 4: At this level of street encounter an officer is required to have probable cause. This requires that an officer have information that leads them to reasonably conclude that an individual has committed a crime. Based on probably cause, an arrest can be made without an arrest warrant, and a search of the individual is permitted subsequent to the arrest without a warrant.
Although President-Elect Donald Trump may believe the stop and frisk method is legal every situation is case specific. The requirement for each level of encounter and the levels of suspicion essential to justify these encounters can be difficult to understand. It takes an experienced lawyer to distinguish the fine lines between the varying levels of suspicion justifying each level of encounter, as well as the permitted officer actions in a given level of encounter. Cambareri & Brenneck can help to familiarize you with your rights and guide you in understanding the legality of a street encounter. If you or someone you know has been charged as a result of a search by the police, contact one of our experienced lawyers so that we can discuss the law and any possible defenses. Give Cambareri & Brenneck a call and see the difference experience can make.