In several recent blog posts, we've dealt with the issue of what police have to do in order to initiate a “seizure” that triggers your Fourth Amendment rights. While the broad spectrum of possible police detentions means that it's not always clear whether you've been seized by police, there are some situations that are clearly seizures, like when police use deadly force on a suspect, bring a suspect to the police station for questioning, or when they erect roadblocks or use sobriety checkpoints.
However, there are also some cut-and-dried cases that are decidedly not seizures. One of them is when law enforcement officers ask someone – whether that someone is suspected of a crime or is just an innocent bystander – a question.
Being Questioned by Police is Not a Seizure
The whole point of the Fourth Amendment is to protect your rights as a citizen from the government, while still allowing law enforcement personnel the leeway that they need to investigate crimes and keep people safe. Out of the many tools that police use to find and investigate a crime, one of the most effective is simply talking to people.
Bystanders and community members who are not being suspected of doing anything wrong often have valuable information for police officers that can lead to evidence and arrests. Additionally, when police talk to suspects, those suspects often confess to a crime or provide other crucial evidence against themselves or others.
Additionally, when police ask people questions out in the field – on sidewalks, in stores, or in parks – people have a right to not respond, and to leave and carry on with their day. This makes police questioning a fairly unintrusive action.
Because of its value to police and its lack of intrusiveness, the Supreme Court of the United States decided that questioning someone, on its own, does not trigger the Fourth Amendment. In the case INS v. Delgado, the Court decided that immigration enforcement officers were allowed to use a warrant to enter a factory that was suspected of employing illegal immigrants and, once inside, could ask the workers there a handful of questions about their citizenship without “seizing” them under the Fourth Amendment. Crucial in the Court's decision – and controversial, considering the circumstances of the case – was the belief that the workers there “were free to walk around within the factory.”
Maine Criminal Defense Attorney William T. Bly
The Delgado case has been widely criticized by legal scholars and criminal defense attorneys, alike, for its narrow reading of individual rights when it comes to interactions with police. However, the Supreme Court has insisted that it was correctly decided, again and again, solidifying its rule that simple police questioning, without more, is not enough to constitute a seizure under the Fourth Amendment.
Unfortunately, this means that you can be approached by police anytime you are out in public and be asked questions without having your rights violated, making it important to remember that you are under no obligation to stay there and answer police questioning.