What if the Police Stop Me on the Street?

Image of police stopping a man on the street

Please see the limitations for disclaimers and additional resources.

When are officers permitted to stop me on the street?

  • If the officers see you commit a violation like littering, jaywalking, or with an open container of alcohol.

  • If the officers reasonably suspect you have committed a crime, like theft, assault, or trespassing.

  • If the officers reasonably believe you are wanted for arrest due to an outstanding warrant or a crime you previously committed.

Jump to examples >>

What if the officers just walk up to me and ask questions (a "social contact")?

  • Police may always approach someone who is in a public place to question them. They may not give directions (like telling a person to stay put or forcing them to answer) or use their authority in a way that would make an average person feel they are not free to leave.

  • If a person is not detained, police may not require them to remain in the area, answer questions, identify themselves, or frisk/search them.

  • If officers do detain someone (forcing them to stay and answer questions) they need a reason to be suspicious of that person.

  • If you are unsure if you are detained, ask. Officers should answer this question.

When are officers permitted to "frisk" someone who is stopped for weapons?

  • Officers are only allowed to frisk someone they have a legal reason to detain and who they reasonably believe to be armed and dangerous.

  • Officers may only make the decision to frisk in order to find weapons; they may not use them purely to search for other evidence like drugs or a driver's license.

  • However, if a frisk reveals something that is obviously drugs, like a needle or a baggie, the officer may seize it as evidence.

What are officers allowed to do during a street stop?

  • When officers detain someone on the street, they may take steps that are proportional to the crime they suspect them of committing.

    • For example, officers may hold an armed robbery suspect at gunpoint, place them in handcuffs, and frisk them. They can take these extreme steps because it's reasonable to think an armed robbery suspect is armed and might do something violent. It would not be permitted to do so when someone is just jaywalking.

When can the officers arrest me during a stop?

  • If you have an outstanding warrant for your arrest.

  • If the officers develop probable cause that you committed a crime, such as through review of surveillance video, an eyewitness identification, or finding evidence of the crime on you.

  • If you physically obstruct the officers, such as by attempting to run away or refusing to follow their directions.

Can the officers stop me because of my race/sex/gender identity/etc.?

  • No - Officers may not base a decision to detain you on the basis of your race, gender identity, sex, political affiliations, housing status, economic status, disability, national origin, or mental illness alone.

  • Officers may use a description provided by a witness to try and identify suspects - for example, if a witness tells the officer a white male committed an assault, officers may use that information to narrow down suspects.

Do I have to identify myself to the officers?

  • You are required to provide identification if the officers witnessed you commit a violation (such as an open beer can). It is also required if officers stop you while you are carrying a firearm or attempting to purchase liquor. Otherwise, officers may not require you to provide identification.

  • Providing false information about your identity, such as a false name, is a separate crime - even if you were not required to provide a name in the first place.

Do I have to talk to the officers?

  • Other than providing your identification in the situations mentioned above, you have the right to remain silent during a street detention, and officers cannot make you answer questions.


Blue circle with yellow number oneTERRY STOP

Officer Conway hears a radio broadcast about a shoplifting incident that just occurred at Target. The suspect is described as a white male, in his 30s, with a thin build, wearing a blue jacket. Officer Conway is two blocks away from Target, and Steven walks right past her patrol car. Steven, in an unfortunate coincidence, matches the description given. Officer Conway detains Steven, thinking him to the be shoplifter, but it ultimately turns out he was not. Steven is released. The detention of Steven was still lawful because it was based on reasonable suspicion that he had just shoplifted.

Blue circle with yellow number twoLIQUOR VIOLATION

Officer Conway sees Jimmy holding an open container of Bud Light beer. Officer Conway stops Jimmy, who refuses to provide his name and says he doesn't have any ID. Officer Conway uses a mobile fingerprint scanner to identify Jimmy, discovers a warrant for Jimmy's arrest, and arrests him. This was permissible because Officer Conway saw Jimmy committing an infraction, which means he was required to identify himself.

Blue circle with yellow number threeWITNESS INTERVIEW

Officer Anne responds to the scene of a car accident. She finds two cars wrecked in the street, but both drivers claim the other ran a stop sign. Officer Anne sees Oliver standing on the street corner looking at the accident. Officer Anne asks Oliver "Did you see what happened?" Officer Anne has no reason to detain Oliver, who is only a witness, but can still ask Oliver to volunteer information. As long as Oliver feels free to leave, Officer Anne is free to ask him questions.

Go back to the other scenarios >>

Probable cause: Required for officers to arrest you or receive a warrant from a judge. Probable cause does not mean the officer has proof you are guilty; it only requires that the officer have good reasons to think you probably are guilty. For example, if a crime victim identifies you to police as the suspect, that usually establishes probable cause even if there is no other evidence.
Reasonable suspicion: Required for officers to stop and briefly detain you without arresting you. Reasonable suspicion means the officer can point to specific, objective, articulable facts that suggest you have committed or are committing a crime. The reasonableness of a suspicion is evaluated from the perspective of the officer's training, experience, and the facts known to the officer at the time of the stop. Probable cause requires it to be probable that you committed a crime, while reasonable suspicion just requires the officer to explain a good reason why you might be committing a crime.
Terry stop: A seizure of a person short of an arrest, which is based upon articulable reasonable suspicion that a person has violated the law. The stop can apply to people as well as vehicles. The subject of a Terry stop is not free to leave.

Limitations: This information applies to interactions with the Seattle Police Department, but not necessarily to other law enforcement agencies. These scenarios are not mutually exclusive and may overlap - for example, police might enter a residence based on exigent circumstances, and then detain the occupants of the residence based upon reasonable suspicion of a crime.
By providing this information, OPA is not giving legal advice. Most of these situations depend on specific facts and circumstances. It is always safest to ask a lawyer about specific issues. If you need legal assistance, please contact the King County Bar Association, or seek out free legal advice at a Neighborhood Legal Clinic

Office of Police Accountability

Gino Betts, Director
Address: 720 3rd Avenue, 18th Floor, Seattle, WA , 98104
Mailing Address: PO Box 34986, Seattle, WA , 98124-4986
Phone: (206) 684-8797
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