The following is a video transcript.
It’s Saturday afternoon and the crowd noise from the football game broadcast is pumping through the surround sound. It’s so loud you almost miss the sound of your phone ringing, and Caller ID says it’s your local police department.
You excuse yourself from the four-touchdown blowout unfolding in your den and head outside to take the call. The voice on the other end identifies themselves as a law enforcement officer and they want to ask you a few questions about a gun you lost years ago.
Your mind starts racing. Was it used in a crime? Did you properly report it missing or did you say it was stolen?
In previous videos, we have discussed the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, the legal standards and proof required in arrest and prosecutions, warrant exceptions, and the differences between a search and a seizure.
Police Interactions: Casual and Formal Encounters.
A casual encounter is not a seizure—you are free to stop the conversation and leave at any time.
A formal encounter is a seizure.
Casual encounters typically consist of an officer walking up to you in a public place and starting a conversation with you. The courts have held that police officers do not need a “legal” reason to approach a person in public and strike up a conversation.
Returning to our example, a phone call would be considered a casual encounter. You have the power to stop the conversation by hanging up, and you are not required to answer any questions on the phone. Depending upon what state you’re in and the laws associated with reporting a missing or stolen firearm, you may want to hang up the phone and start scheduling appointments with an attorney.
Police officers typically use these informal conversations to get more information to reach the legal levels of proof of reasonable suspicion or probable cause that a crime has occurred or is occurring. If they reach either level, you could find yourself detained, or even under arrest. Once you’re detained or under arrest, you can rest assured there is nothing casual about your encounter with law enforcement.
What if the officer on the phone asks you to go to the station and answer some questions? Unless you are a victim of a crime that does not involve you using force or a weapon in self-defense, you should never go to the police station to give a statement or answer questions without first consulting with an attorney or bringing one with you.
Let’s change the scenario. You’re in another state, you had a few alcoholic drinks at your hotel, and you remember that you left a bag in your car in the parking lot outside. You concealed your firearm on your person and you go to the parking lot.
Once outside, a police officer approaches you and asks if you’re okay. You say “yes,” and attempt to walk to your vehicle. The police officer stands in front of you and asks if you’ve been drinking. Before you can answer, he says he can smell the strong odor of alcohol coming from you.
Should you go ahead and answer his questions?
No. At this point, you are detained. The difference between a conviction and a dismissal, or a jury saying you’re not guilty, often hinges on what an accused person says to a police officer. It is completely up to you to invoke your Constitutional Rights. Tell them you are invoking your right to remain silent, and you are not going to answer any questions without your attorney present.
In the meantime, if you have any questions about police interactions or speaking with law enforcement, call U.S. LawShield and ask to speak to your Independent Program Attorney.