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Understanding the Three Levels of Police Encounters: Arrests, Investigative Stops, and Consensual Encounters

The label applied to the three levels of police encounters with individuals will determine the constitutional rights of the persons being stopped or detained. The Fourth Amendment protects people from unreasonable searches of their persons, houses, papers, and belongings by the government. A search warrant must be supported by sworn allegations of probable cause and describe in detail the place to be searched and the people or things the officer is to seize. 

The rules will vary depending on the nature of the encounter. A Washington criminal defense attorney can help you in understanding the three levels of police encounters: arrests, investigative stops, and consensual encounters.


The most serious type of encounter between law enforcement and private individuals is the arrest. In our state, the government cannot legally arrest someone without probable cause. The person getting arrested has the full protection of the law on searches and seizures. Sometimes, the law requires the officer to have a valid arrest warrant.

Investigative Stops

An investigative detention, often called a “terry stop,” falls somewhere between the intensity level of an arrest and a consensual encounter. The individual is not yet under arrest, but the officer has restrained the person’s freedom of movement. In other words, the individual is not free to go.

The officer must be able to articulate a reasonable suspicion that this particular individual has committed, is in the process of committing, or is about to commit a specific crime. Hunches and “mere suspicions” do not satisfy this requirement. The reasonable suspicion must have factual grounds and observations based on the officer’s training and experience.

Although the individual is not free to leave from the scene of an investigative stop, the detention can become a de facto arrest if the stop lasts beyond a reasonable time. Also, a show of force, use of restraint, or other factors could change the situation from an investigative detention to a de facto arrest.

Consensual Encounters

A consensual encounter is a much more casual interaction between law enforcement and individuals than an arrest or an investigative stop. If you walk into the police station and ask for directions to the restroom or you chat with an officer at the grocery store, these are consensual encounters.

Paramount to a consensual encounter is the fact that you are free to walk away at any time without any adverse consequences. You do not have to answer the officer’s questions or identify yourself. If you happen to be on your property at the time of a consensual encounter, you have the right to ask the officer to leave your property. 

Often, a consensual encounter does not involve the appearance or suspicion of criminal activity. The officer may, however, ask you any questions they want to. Also, the police could ask for your consent to search yourself or your property. In a consensual encounter, the officer must accept your refusal to consent to a search.

Morphing from One Type of Encounter to Another

Sometimes, an encounter between a police officer and an individual escalates from one type of encounter to another. For example, if the officer restrains the person’s movement by telling them to go to a different location or turns on the police cruiser’s emergency lights, the encounter has likely morphed beyond a consensual encounter. Intimidation through a show of force like additional officers can make the situation no longer a consensual encounter.

If you feel that a law enforcement officer violated your constitutional rights, you will want to talk with a Washington criminal defense attorney immediately. Contact Jennifer today to learn more.

DISCLAIMER: This post is intended to share my perspective, insights, and some general information on various aspects of criminal cases. It is not legal advice and is not intended to substitute for legal advice. You should consult an attorney to obtain legal advice for your individual situation and case.