What is a mere encounter?
A mere encounter is an exchange of information. No level of suspicion (of criminal activity) by the officer is required and you are free to leave. That is why it is important to ask if 1) you are under arrest and 2) if you are free to leave. If you can leave then leave. A mere encounter is considered voluntary and your fourth amendment rights do not attach. Further refusing to cooperate with the officer does not give him reasonable suspicion to detain you.
What is the difference between a mere encounter and a stop or detention?
If the officer tells you that you are being detained or that you are not free to leave then the encounter becomes a stop or detention. A stop or detention is a temporary investigation. A frisk or pat down falls into this category. Essentially whenever a police officer restrains your freedom to walk away, you have been stopped or seized. Here, while you are not free to leave, you are protected by the fourth amendment against unreasonable stop or detentions.
Factors such as the officer’s tone of voice matter in determining if there has been a mere encounter or a stop/detention. The crux is whether you are free to leave.
Examples of a mere encounter:
- Officer approaching you and asking questions = mere encounter.
- Officer asking what you are doing in the area, what your name is, if you have any drugs = mere encounter.
- Officer approaching an occupied vehicle and knocking on the window = mere encounter.
- Use of siren or emergency lights, surprisingly = mere encounter.
- Parking the police car in such a way that you can’t leave, surprisingly = mere encounter.
- Use of officer spotlight alone = mere encounter.
- Use of officer overhead lights alone = mere encounter.
Examples when mere encounter turns into a detention:
- Officer approaches an occupied vehicle + orders the person to roll down the window = detention.
- Officer asking for permission to search = detention.
- Tellling occupants of a vehicle to exit and have a seat with hands in view = detention.
- Shining spotlight + order/request to come over to officer = detention.
- Police spotlight + police overhead lights = detention.
What will give an officer reasonable suspicion to detain you?
- Reaching for your waistband upon being approached by an officer.
- Admitting you were driving drunk.
- odor of alcohol + red, bloodshot, glassy eyes + slurred speech + admitting you were drinking.
- odor of marijuana.
What will NOT give an officer reasonable suspicion to detain you?
- gang membership alone.
- refusal to cooperate in an encounter.