Mere Encounter or Detention
People often question whether or not they are required to stop and talk to a police officer if they are approached on the street. As with almost everything, the answer is "it depends." There is a distinction in the law between a "mere encounter" with a police officer and an "investigative detention." Generally, a person is permitted to walk away from the officer and need not answer questions. The law considers a routine approach and questioning by an officer to be a "mere encounter." The critical part of the mere encounter is that the person is not legally obligated to stop and answer questions. If the person does stop and answer questions, everything is being done voluntarily and thereby admissible. If the officer intends to conduct an "investigative detention," then the person is not free to leave. Legally, in order for an officer to detain a person for investigative purposes, the officer must have reasonable suspicion to believe that the person was engaged in criminal activity.
Review of Concepts in Penn State Underage Drinking Cases
While a person can readily understand that they are permitted to walk away from a mere encounter, problems arise when trying to determine whether the police-citizen interaction is a mere encounter or an investigative detention. This issue often arises in the context of Penn State students charged with Underage Drinking. At a Penn State tailgate, an officer approaches a young man that is holding a beer and looks as if he is under 21. The officer then questions the man as to his age and requests identification, the man admits to being under 21 and provides his photo driver's license, and, upon confirming the man's date of birth, the officer issues an Underage Drinking citation. This is a classic example of a mere encounter. While the man believed that he would be required to provide his identification to the officer, the law does impose such a requirement, and the man's mistaken belief does not save him. The man's voluntary admission to being under 21 and voluntary surrender of his license makes such evidence admissible at a summary hearing for the Underage Drinking charge.
If the facts are changed slightly, the mere encounter becomes an investigative detention. If the young man had attempted to walk away as the officer approached, and the officer then placed a hand on the man's shoulder and told him to stop, then this should be deemed an investigative detention. With the officer's placement of a hand on the man's shoulder and a demand to stop, it is clear that the officer is exercising authority and intending to conduct a detention. I once had a case in which a Penn State student at a tailgate attempted to walk away and ignore the officer's request for identification. The officer grabbed the client's arm, client pulled slightly, and the client was then charged with Disorderly Conduct for attempting to walk away. The case ultimatley proceeded to a hearing, at which point I argued that the client was simply exercising his constitutional right to walk away and his actions did not rise to the level of Disorderly Conduct. The Centre County judge agreed and found him not guilty.
Many Underage Drinking hearings are focused upon the issue of whether a a meeting between a police officer and a citizen is a mere encounter or an investigative detention. If the court determines that the interaction was a mere encounter, then all incriminating evidence is admissible at a hearing. If the court finds that an investigative detention occurred and ALSO determines that the officer did not have reasonable suspicion to detain the person, then the judge suppresses evidence. I have successfully obtained suppression of evidence in a number of Penn State Underage Drinking cases throughout the years. As with all cases, the ability to win is based upon the particular facts of every case.