Field Inquiry, Investigative Detention, and Arrest Rules

When encountered by the police in New Jersey it is important to be aware of your surroundings just as it is to know your constitutional rights. Often, there is confusion about the degree to which one has been detained. Sometimes, the totality of the circumstances of a police encounter must be evaluated to determine whether a person has been subjected to a simple field inquiry, an investigative detention, or an arrest. However, just because a person has not been formally arrested, does not mean that a seizure has not occurred.

There are three levels of police encounters. The lowest of these is a field inquiry. According to Terry v. Ohio 392 U.S. 1 (1968), police may not stop people at random and detain them without a particularized suspicion of criminal activity. However, police are allowed to conduct a field inquiry, which is not seen as an infringement upon constitutional rights, according to State v. Pineiro, 181 N.J. 13, 20 (2004). This is because a field inquiry is nothing more than a police officer asking a regular person some questions, when they have no reason to detain the person further. According to Florida v. Royer, “Law enforcement officers do not violate the Fourth Amendment by merely approaching an individual on the street or in another public place, by asking him if he is willing to answer some questions, by putting questions to him if the person is willing to listen ..” Florida v. Royer, 460 U.S. 491, 497, 103 S. Ct. 1319, 1324, 75 L. Ed. 2d 229, 236 (1983) " But it is also clear that a person "need not answer any question put to him, that he may decline to listen to the questions at all and may go on his way," and that "his refusal to listen or answer does not, without more, furnish" grounds for his detention.” Id. at 498, 103 S. Ct. at 1324, 75 L. Ed. 2d at 236. The most important thing to know about a field inquiry is that you don’t have to listen to the police and answer their questions, if you are not being detained. You have the right to just walk away.

A simple field inquiry evolves into an investigative stop or detention when a reasonable person would believe they are not free to leave. See State v. Shaw, 213 N.J. 398 (2012), State v. Rodriguez, 172 N.J. 117 (2002), and Florida v. Royer 460 U.S. 491 (1983). An investigative stop, sometimes called a Terry stop must be based on a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. The standard here is less than the probable cause required to effectuate an arrest. Though an investigative stop or detention is still considered to be a seizure of the person, because they are not free to leave. A person has been seized whenever there is "meaningful interference, however brief, with an individual's freedom of movement." United States v. Jacobsen, 466 U.S. 109, 113 & n.5 (1984). The general rule is that a person is "seized" when the attending circumstances of a police encounter would lead a reasonable person to believe that the freedom to leave was not an option. See Florida v. Royer, 460 U.S. 491 (1983). Even a short detention, such as a stop for a motor vehicle violation, may qualify as a seizure within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. See State v. Baum, 199 N.J. 407, 423 (2009); State v. Dickey, 152 N.J. 468, 475 (1998); State v. Chapman, 332 N.J. Super. 452, 461 (App. Div. 2000).

Formal traffic stops where a marked police car with siren lights stops a person is considered a seizure, because you are not free to leave. See Delaware v. Prouse, 440 U.S. 648, 650 (1979), State v. Amelio, 197 N.J. 207 (2008). Also, any passengers in a motor vehicle stop are also considered to be seized. See Brendlin v. California, 551 U.S. 249 (2007); State v.Sloane, 193 N.J. 423 (2008). However, when a marked police car merely follows a person, without activating their siren lights or commanding the person to halt, then it is not a seizure. See Michigan v. Chesternut, 486 U.S. 567 (1988) ; State v. Hughes, 296 N.J. Super. 291 (App. Div.).

However, regular encounters with police may escalate into seizures when any factors arise where a reasonable person would feel that they are not free to leave. For example, Since United States v. Werking, 915 F.2.d 1404 (10th Cir. 1990), United States courts have repeatedly concluded that a detention cannot end before an officer returns a driver’s documentation. See United States v. Gregory, 79 F.3d. 973 (10th Cir. 1996). It stands to reason that if the police are holding your driver’s license, you are not free to leave. The same would be true, for example, if the police had confiscated your keys while questioning you during a traffic stop. Other factors that would determine if you have been seized include: whether the officer's questions were conversational in manner, whether the officer made demands or issued orders, whether the officer's manner was either overbearing or harassing in nature, whether outnumbered by police, whether guns were drawn, or if the police had blocked your path in any way, as in State v. Davis, 104 N.J. 490 (1986). Whether you have been seized or not is case specific and depends on the circumstances of the encounter.

An arrest also qualifies as a seizure, but it is more than that, because an arrest requires the presence of probable cause, which is a higher standard than the reasonable suspicion of criminal activity required to effectuate an investigative detention. There are other conditions associated with arrests that do not apply with investigative detentions. A clearer definition of an arrest is found in State v. Ferraro, 81 N.J. Super. 213, 217 (Cty. Ct. 1963), where “An arrest, as the term is used in the criminal law, signifies the apprehension or detention of the person of another in order that he may be forthcoming to answer for an alleged or supposed crime.”

Whether an investigatory detention or an arrest, the classification of a seizure has meaningful implications regarding the constitutional rights that must be afforded during such an encounter. If you are subjected to a seizure, by having your freedom of movement restricted, even though it may not amount to a formal arrest, the element of the seizure of your person will trigger certain constitutional rights or could possibly make subsequent seizures of physical evidence invalid as fruit of the poisonous tree. The distinction may determine things like whether your Miranda rights should have been read or not, or whether a consent waiver was voluntary, etc. A seizure has all kinds of implications. Therefore, it is important to know the distinction between an investigative detention and arrest or a simple field inquiry. An experienced attorney can help you evaluate the factors surrounding a police encounter and apply the right federal or state laws to your unique circumstances. With so many variances and factors to consider it is important to have an experienced attorney who can correctly evaluate your case.