Close Encounters With Law Enforcement

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Police reports often describe an officer’s initial contact with a citizen as a consensual encounter. And these so-called consensual encounters sometimes result in searches of the person or car and ultimately in arrests. Can the police stop people without a reason and arrest them?

Florida law recognizes three kinds of contact with law enforcement:

  • Consensual contacts
  • Investigatory stops
  • Arrests

A consensual contact is one where both parties, police officer and citizen, willingly enter into some kind of social discourse. In fact, consensual encounters are usually pretexts for the police to fish for enough information to search and arrest the citizen. Absent a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity by the citizen, police officers have no right to detain anyone for investigation. However, the consensual encounter tool permits law enforcement officers to strike up a casual conversation with their targets until some admission or statement or behavior provides the police with enough probable cause to conduct an investigatory detention or search.

Is the contact by law enforcement really consensual?  Law enforcement officers carry guns, have powers of arrest, and are often accompanied by other armed and physically intimidating members of their force. Citizens are generally unarmed, taught to respect or fear authority, and are almost always alone when these contacts take place. How consensual can the encounter be in the face of authority, and what can you do if caught up in such an encounter?

Tips for handling your consensual contact

You may not escape being arrested in the end, but these tips could help you avoid arrest and keep your interaction with law enforcement on a harmless level:

  • Be polite — Do not act rudely, threaten to sue the department or become verbally belligerent.
  • Say no — If a police officer asks for permission to search you or your car, politely say no — and keep saying it if the question is asked more than once.
  • Stay calm — Don’t run away and don’t physically obstruct or resist the police officer.
  • Don’t lie — You don’t need to lie because you have the right not to answer questions, so simply tell the officer you don’t wish to speak to him or her.
  • Ask if you are free to leave — If you are not being detained or under arrest, then calmly walk away.