Police officers are in a position of both legal and social authority over the individuals with whom they interact as part of their job. Officers have the difficult responsibility of investigating criminal activity and trying to determine what really happened. Often, they will question multiple people beyond just the individual suspected of an offense.
Whether officers think you committed a crime or possibly witnessed it, they might want to speak with you at length. Can you just walk away from an officer who stops you on the street or who calls you out of your house to speak with you?
You have the freedom to leave unless the officer intends to detain you
During a conversation or questioning with law enforcement officers, one of the most important phrases for people to remember is, “Am I being detained?” There is a noteworthy legal difference between casually speaking with someone and detaining them as part of an investigation, and those differences affect your rights at the time of the encounter.
Officers can and often do detain people whom they don’t even suspect of criminal activity. They can, theoretically, detain you for as long as is necessary for them to complete the investigation, provided that they can argue that your knowledge is critical to their investigative process.
If the officer informs you that they do not intend to detain you, you can leave at that point. However, if they do intend to detain you, they may question you, transport you to the police station or even place you under arrest if they suspect you of a crime.
You do not have to consent to any conversation or search against your will
Unless officers have a warrant or probable cause, they can’t forcibly search your body, your vehicle or your home without your approval or a warrant. Even if officers do have a warrant or place you under arrest, they still cannot compel you to speak, especially if they formally question you while you are under arrest.
If you find yourself detained by police and worried about what might happen to you, your right to remain silent and your right to an attorney may be the only thing standing between you and future legal issues.