“Strong relationships of mutual trust between police agencies and the communities they serve are critical to maintaining public safety and effective policing. Police officials rely on the cooperation of community members to provide information about crime in their neighborhoods, and to work with the police to devise solutions to crime and disorder problems. Similarly community members’ willingness to trust the police depends on whether they believe that police actions reflect community values and incorporate the principles of procedural justice and legitimacy.” Community Relations Service, U.S. Department of Justice.
Protecting your rights and staying safe:
- You have the right to remain silent when interacting with police and the right to ask for a lawyer if you are arrested.
- If you stay calm, and do not run away from or resist police, you may reduce the risk of negative consequences for you.
- If you are stopped by the police while in a vehicle, you may reduce the risk of negative consequences to you by keeping your hands visible on the steering wheel, not reaching for your documents or anything else in the car, and not getting out of the car, unless the officer instructs you to do so.
- The public has a First Amendment right to film/record police officers doing their jobs in public. Stay at a safe distance and do not interfere with or obstruct the police action.
- In some communities, citizens have set up a police oversight agency to provide an external check on their police department. In Pennsylvania, police oversight bodies have been formed in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Learn how your community can do this.
The legal rules governing lawful policing can be complex and highly dependent on the situation. The following discussion is intended to provide just a basic summary of key principles that apply in various contexts – principles that apply generally, in public, in a car, and at home. All real-life situations, however, must be carefully analyzed in light of all the facts and applicable law.
A police officer is permitted to stop a person based on reasonable suspicion, which means specific and articulable facts that lead the officer to think that a person is involved in a crime. A hunch, a gut feeling, or vague suspicions are not enough.
Only if an officer has reasonable suspicion that a stopped person has a weapon, may they frisk the person, which means they may pat the outside of the person’s clothing to see if any weapons are felt. An officer is NOT permitted to frisk every person that they stop. Only if an officer feels a weapon during a frisk can they reach into a person’s clothing to retrieve the weapon.
If an office has probable cause to believe a person is or was involved in a crime, the officer can search the person, including reaching inside their clothing, like opening pockets or reaching inside a jacket.
In order to arrest a person, an officer needs probable cause to believe that the person has committed a crime.
How do I know if I’m being stopped or arrested?
You can ask “Am I free to leave?” and if the officer says no, you are either stopped or under arrest. If the officer says yes, then you may leave – you do not have to answer questions or agree to any further cooperation unless you choose to.
Do I have to show ID to police?
Although Pennsylvania law does not require you to show an ID (other than a driver’s license if you are driving), it may take longer to process you if you choose not to show ID. Providing false identification information is a crime in Pennsylvania.
If an officer asks for my permission to frisk me or to conduct a search, can I really say no?
Yes. If an officer asks to search you, your car, your home, or your personal property, you can always say no. However, your consent is not needed for an officer to frisk you IF the officer has reasonable suspicion that you have a weapon. Your consent is also not needed for an officer to search you IF the officer has probable cause that you were involved in a crime.
Does an officer have to read me my rights?
Not necessarily. An officer only needs to inform you of your Miranda rights before conducting a custodial interrogation, meaning questioning about possible criminal activity in circumstances where you are not free to leave.
When can an officer use force, and how much force can the officer use?
An officer can use some force to stop or arrest a person. The force must be reasonable under the circumstances and may not be excessive. The law takes into account, among other things: how serious the crime under investigation is, how much of a threat a person poses, and whether the person is actively resisting or attempting to flee. Best practices include following principles of proportionality and de-escalation in the use of force.
When can an officer use deadly/lethal force?
A police officer can use lethal force only if he or she reasonably believes that the officer’s life or someone else’s life is in danger. The law considers what the officer perceived at the time from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, even if it turns out later the officer was mistaken.
When can an officer stop me in a car?
A police officer can require you to pull over when he has reasonable suspicion of your involvement in a crime (a traffic crime or otherwise). Police officers can conduct stops at fixed checkpoints in order to carry out a government interest (like preventing drunk driving), as long as they stop drivers consistently and not in a random, arbitrary manner.
Can an officer ask me to get out of my car?
Yes, an officer can lawfully order you to get out of your car as long as the traffic stop was lawful.
Can an officer search my car?
Yes, in one or more of the following situations:
- If an officer has probable cause that you’ve committed a crime and that there might be evidence of that crime in the car, the officer can search your car for that evidence.
- If an officer has reasonable suspicion that you’re dangerous, the officer can search the passenger compartment for weapons (generally, not the trunk). Similarly, if after being stopped you’re taken under arrest, an officer can search the passenger compartment of your car (generally, not the trunk).
- If a car needs to be moved by the police or taken into police custody, the police may search the entire car.
Outside of these situations, an officer needs your permission or a warrant to search your car. If an officer asks you for permission to search your car, you may decline and the officer cannot use that against you. (Note: An officer does not need your permission to simply look through the windows of your car, even with a flashlight.)
Can an officer search my home?
If an officer has a search warrant for your home, they may enter and search your house, but, in Pennsylvania, may not do so with only an arrest warrant for a person unless the arrest warrant authorizes entry. You can ask to see a search warrant, and the police must show it to you, but they do not need to show you before they search.
Otherwise, in most situations an officer can search your home only with your consent to do so. If an officer asks you if he or she can search your home, you may decline and the officer cannot use that against you. There are also rare exceptions which allow officers to enter a house if people inside are in imminent danger, if there is imminent destruction of evidence of a crime inside the house, or if they are in “hot pursuit” of a fleeing criminal suspect.
Nothing on this page should be construed as legal advice.