Police Stop – Levels 1 and 2
This information is meant to keep you smart and safe on the street during a police stop. We included both the legal language and a break-down of what it means, because not understanding language can leave you confused and powerless when it’s thrown at you.
If you’re young, Black or Brown, the constant stops by the police feel like harassment. But, unfortunately under the law, the cops basically have the right to stop anyone and ask questions at any time, making it very difficult to prove police misconduct or racial profiling. This is why it is so important to write down the details of each contact you have with the police, and make a complaint every time you feel they have done something wrong.
As a police stop gets more serious, the police will get more into your space – both physically and with questions. In legal language this is referred to as a higher “level of intrusion” with each step representing a greater invasion of your privacy and a greater threat to your freedom. We have organized this according to each level – so you can know what to expect from the police and what you can do to increase your chances of staying safe and out of custody.
Level One – The Approach – a.k.a. “A Consensual Encounter”
This is also called “Right to Inquire.” Under the law, a police officer can come up to you and ask basic questions, even if they have no reason to suspect you did, or are doing anything wrong. They will usually ask questions such as your name, address, identification, parent’s information and your probation status. The police will call this an entirely voluntary conversation, even though getting mad or refusing to answer the questions will most likely escalate the situation even to violence or arrest.
What to Do During Level One: Give your name, address, and if they ask – the contact information for a parent or guardian. Don’t ask any other questions. Ask if you are free to leave. If you are told you can’t leave, or are physically blocked from leaving, then you should assume that the situation has escalated to an official “stop” – level two or three.
Carry Identification: Legally, you don’t have to carry identification unless you’re driving, flying from an airport, or crossing a national border. But, we recommend that you carry a picture ID at all times, because it can keep you out of custody. Especially if you are under 18 or look like you’re under 18, this will prove to the police who you are, and can prevent them from taking you into the police station with the excuse that it’s “for your own protection” until they can determine who you are and/or contact your parents. If you’re undocumented or don’t have the money to get a state ID, carry a school or job ID. It’s best if it has your name, address, date of birth and your photo.
Level Two – Stop for Further Investigation
This is also what the law calls a stop based on “FOUNDED SUSPICION” or to gather “EXPLANATORY INFORMATION.” Once the police start asking you anything beyond your basic information, you should assume that you are at level two. The police have the legal right to ask you more detailed questions, if they have a “founded suspicion” that criminal activity may be occurring. But, keep reading. It doesn’t take much to be labeled “suspicious,” under the law.
Don’t talk! At all times, you have the right to remain silent! As soon as the police approach you, they have the legal right to ask questions, BUT YOU HAVE THE LEGAL RIGHT TO REFUSE TO ANSWER. The police do not have to read you your rights until you’re arrested, but anything you say, AT ANY TIME can be used against you in a court of law. So, at all times, no matter how friendly or innocent the situation might seem, give the police your name, address, ID, phone and parent contact info, and nothing else. If they threaten to arrest or detain you, then say, “I still can not answer any questions without speaking to a lawyer. I want to speak to a lawyer as soon as possible. Please have my parent/guardian notified of my arrest or detention.” Once you ask for a lawyer, the police can not legally ask you any more questions until you have a lawyer with you.
After the police approach you and ask a few basic questions, if you still feel that you are not free to walk away from the cops, then you should consider it a “stop.” Common ways to know that you have been stopped include:
- The cops are displaying a weapon (gun, taser or baton).
- There are more than two police officers at the scene.
- The police are physically touching or restraining you.
- The police order you to stop, such as shouting, “Don’t move!”
- You start to move away, or ask if you are “free to go” and are stopped from leaving.
- The police tone of voice or body language becomes more intimidating or commanding.
Technically, the police cannot stop you due to prejudiced impressions – (i.e. because they feel like it, because you’re young, because you’re a person of color, etc.) But, the law gives police a lot of power to stop people.
Some of the “legal” reasons the police can use for stops include:
- Your appearance – such as “you fit the description” of someone who just committed a crime.
- “You look gang related.” California was the first state in the U.S. and still one of the few where it is against the law to be a gang member. So police have a lot of power to stop people based on this criteria, including if you’re bald, if you’re with a group, if you’re hanging out or even living in a certain area, if you “associate with gang members” – even if the people are in your family, live on your street or go to your school – if you’re wearing certain colors or brands of clothing/shoes, if you’re wearing a white tee – (since people started wearing white-tees to avoid being “hit-up,” police now consider fresh whites as gang related). For more on police gang policies, check out the legal information in this website on gang databases, gang injunctions and gang enhancements.
- Suspicion that drugs are being used or sold. This could include people that are hanging out in one area – even on your own front porch or on the sidewalk in front of your house – for extended periods of time.
- Carrying suspicious objects, especially if it’s at an odd time – such as walking down the street with a television set at three in the morning.