THE THREE LEVELS OF POLICE/CITIZEN ENCOUNTERS
The United States Constitution protects us from arbitrary seizures of our person while living in the community. However, police officer do come into contact with ordinary citizens on a daily basis. Some of those encounters are uneventful while others can lead to violent arrest.
The state and federal courts have recognized 3 types of police/citizen encounters which are important from a legal aspect.
A first tier encounter is when a citizen and an officer come into contact voluntarily. This may mean just speaking to one another on the street or when a citizen seeks the assistance of the officer. First tier encounters also encompass situations where the officer approaches a citizen and asks questions. The key question in determining whether or not it is a first tier encounter is whether or not the citizen is free to leave the encounter. If so, it is first tier, if not it is second or third.
A second tier encounter is called a Terry stop. These type of encounters are named for the 1968 United States Supreme Court decision in Terry v. Ohio. These situations are very tricky and are the foundation of hundreds of cases in Georgia alone.
A Terry stop occurs when an officers conducts a “brief investigatory stop” of a person. The person is technically not free to leave during this brief detention. However, police officers cannot just perform Terry stops whenever they choose. They must have reasonable, articulable suspicion (more than just a hunch) that a crime has been or is being committed. Under these circumstances, the officer is authorized to briefly detain the citizen to further investigate the situation.
An example of a Terry stop would be when an officer observes and approaches 2 individuals passing money and “something else” in the middle of the night in an area known for high drug activity.
A third tier encounter is an arrest. The Georgia Supreme Court has said that “a person is under arrest whenever his liberty to come and go as he pleases is restrained, no matter how slight such restraint may be”. In other words, when the handcuffs are on, you are under arrest.
An officer cannot arrest a citizen unless they have probable cause (more than reasonable, articulable suspicion) to do so. This would be when in the above example, the officer finds that the “something else” happened to be a bag of cocaine.
As you can guess, our unique system of criminal jurisprudence provides more protections for citizens than any other in the world. Make sure that you do your part to keep it that way.