Fort Lauderdale Criminal Defense Lawyer Explains the Three Levels of Police Encounters

When Florida law enforcement officers interact with the public in the course of their duties, there are three levels of interaction that will dictate how any search or seizure in the course of that interaction will be judged from a legal perspective.

These three levels of interaction are:

  • Consensual encounters.
  • Detention or investigative stops.
  • Arrests.Broward criminal defense lawyer

Within each of these interactions, the person involved has constitutionally-protected rights. But those constitutional protections are different at each level. If those rights are violated, then it is more likely that your Fort Lauderdale criminal defense lawyer will have some success in convincing the court to suppress evidence gleaned in that interaction. Here, we review the rights and protections at each level.

Consensual Encounters

Consensual encounters with police in Florida don’t require officers to establish any sort of evidence of wrongdoing. There’s no bright line rule for when an encounter is consensual vs. investigative, but we can say that a key aspect of consensual police encounters is that the person at the center of the interaction is free to leave.

The lines can get a little fuzzy because courts have held that law enforcement is allowed during a consensual encounter to ask you questions, ask to see your ID, might even ask to search your vehicle. If they say or imply that complying with their requests is mandatory, then it’s no longer a consensual encounter. However, police encounters can often be intimidating and people sometimes feel they don’t have much of a choice – even when they do. If you consent to answer questions or to be searched during a consensual encounter, it can be difficult to challenge any evidence gleaned from that – because you freely agreed to it. You’re often better off keeping your answers brief, politely declining any requests to search, and asking point blank whether you’re free to go.

In determining whether a police interaction began with a consensual encounter (as opposed to an investigative stop), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the 1980 case of U.S. v. Mendenhall that courts should examine the totality of circumstances – and specifically, whether a reasonable person believed themselves free to go.

Investigatory Stops or Detention

Detention or investigatory stops occur when police temporarily detain a person for the purpose of investigating the possibility that the individual has committed a crime or is in the process of committing one. Individuals subject to an investigatory stop or detention are not free to go. But such stops require officers to have a certain measure of proof, and suspects have certain legal protections.

As outlined in the landmark 1968 U.S. Supreme Court case of Terry¬† v. Ohio, justification for an investigatory stop requires the officer to have a well-founded, reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. Well-founded suspicions can’t be simply “a hunch.” They need to have some basis in fact, considering the circumstances observed by the officer and interpreted in light of that officer’s professional knowledge. If they’re stopping someone on the basis of a physical description of a suspect, that description must be sufficiently specific and corroborated by reliable information. Appellate courts have often ruled that stops based on overly-broad physical descriptions don’t stand up to judicial scrutiny.

A Florida case on investigatory stops wound its way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2000, where justices ruled in Florida v. J.L. that a “stop-and-frisk” search initiated solely on the basis of an anonymous tip violated the defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights.


The third type of police encounter one can have in Florida is an arrest.

Arrest typically involves physical force – or at least physical contact – between the officer and the suspect. The officer asserts some level of authority, to which the individual who is under arrest must submit. Individuals under arrest are not free to go.

Here again though, the burden of proof is on the officer. As explained in the 1964 U.S. Supreme Court case of Beck v. Ohio, an officer who makes an arrest must have adequate evidence to show that they had probable cause to believe the suspect committed or was committing a criminal offense. Officers must base their evidence of probable cause on reasonably trustworthy information that would convince a reasonably prudent person that the defendant committed or was in the process of committing a crime. It can’t simply be mere suspicion or a guess – that won’t stand up in court.

If you have been arrested in South Florida, our Broward criminal defense lawyers can help answer your questions and work to formulate an effective defense strategy given the circumstances.

Call Fort Lauderdale Criminal Defense Attorney Richard Ansara at (954) 761-4011. Serving Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties.

Additional Resources:

Terry v. Ohio, 1968, U.S. Supreme Court

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