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Reentry Resource Center - New York

Serving People from Arrest to Reintegration

Police Encounters & Misconduct

1. When can police stop me on the street?

In theory, the police cannot stop you on the street without reason. In its landmark decision in Terry v. Ohio in 1968, the Supreme Court ruled that police officers may stop and detain a person based on a "reasonable suspicion that s/he might be about to commit a crime or is in the process of committing a crime." In Terry the Court also ruled that police officers may conduct a limited pat-down or "frisk" outside the clothing if they have a reasonable belief based on facts that the person may be armed and dangerous. The purpose of this pat-down is not to search, but only to discover a weapon.

A New York State Court of Appeals case (People v. DeBour) established four levels of street encounters with police, and allows a different "permissible response" by the police in each one:

  1. If an officer has an "objective, credible reason" she can request information. For example, if there has been an accident and the officer thinks you may be a witness, she can approach you and ask, "Did you see the car run a red light?"
  2. If the officer has "founded suspicion" that criminal activity is happening, she can ask you about it directly. For example, if the officer sees a bulge in your pocket, she can ask "Do you have anything on you?" At this point, you have a legal right to refuse to answer and walk away calmly. The simple act of walking away calmly is not enough to give officers "reasonable suspicion" to stop you.
  3. If an officer has "reasonable suspicion" that you have committed, are committing, or are about to commit a crime, she can forcibly stop, pull over, pursue, or temporarily detain you. Legally, they can only frisk you (pat down) if there is reasonable suspicion that you are armed and dangerous. For example, if you are pacing back and forth in front of a store looking like you're casing for a robbery, the officer can stop you forcibly. At this point, they can't search you without your consent. They can't arrest you and bring you to the precinct without your consent. You have a legal right to say "I do not consent to a search."
  4. If an officer has "probable cause" to believe that you committed a crime, they may arrest you. For example, the police observed you selling drugs; or someone called the police and complained that you assaulted him.

For additional information on police encounters and your rights, visit Communities United for Police Reform's "Know Your Rights" guide.

2. When are police allowed to arrest me?

Police officers are allowed to arrest you if they have probable cause to believe that you committed an offense. "Probable cause" is defined by the U.S. Constitution as a minimum amount of evidence that a crime was committed, and that you committed it, needed to arrest you and move forward with a prosecution against you.

3. What can I do if I experience police violence or misconduct?

If you have had a negative interaction with the police and believe that you were mistreated, you have the options to file a complaint with the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) and/or to file a lawsuit.

No matter what you plan to do, write down the details of your encounter with the police as soon as possible after the incident. Write down everything you remember, including:

- The date and approximate time of the incident
- The location where it occurred
- The officer's name and/or identification number (if you remember it)
- The license plate number of the police cruiser (if you remember it)
- Any identifying features of the police officer - gender, race/ethnicity, hair or eye color, or approximate height, weight, age, or other unique characteristics

Even if you can only recall the date, time and location of the incident, this information is often enough for the police department to identify which officer was responsible for the misconduct.

You will be able to use this information if you decide to file a complaint with the Civilian Complaint Review Board or file a lawsuit. However, make sure to consult with your criminal defense attorney before speaking to the CCRB.

4. What is the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB)?

  • The CCRB handles complaints from people who have experienced:
    • excessive force
    • abuse of authority (example, an improper stop and frisk)
    • discourtesy (example, cursing, obscene gestures)
    • offensive language ("slurs, derogatory remarks and/or gestures based on a person's sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, religion, gender or disability")

The CCRB reviews allegations of police misconduct and files these allegations on the officer's permanent record. Depending on the results of the police department's investigation, the police officer may receive disciplinary action.

Any complaints filed with the CCRB are public record and can be used against you. If you have an open criminal case, you should consult with your criminal defense attorney.

5. How can I file a complaint with the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB?)

You have 18 months from the date of the incident to file a complaint with the CCRB.

  • You can file a complaint with the CCRB in a variety of ways:
    • Call CCRB hotline by dialing 311 (outside of New York, you can reach the CCRB at 212-NEW-YORK or 212-504-4115)
    • File a complaint in person at 40 Rector Street, 2nd Floor, Manhattan, Monday-Friday, 8am-5pm
    • File a complaint online (visit

For more information on how the CCRB works, visit

6. How do I file a lawsuit?

If you think you might want to file a lawsuit against the Police Department, you must first file a Notice of Claim within ninety (90) days of the police misconduct. You can obtain a Notice of Claim form at

The actual lawsuit must be filed within one year and ninety days of the incident. To find legal representation for your lawsuit, you can call the City Bar Legal Referral Service at (212) 626-7373.

Note: if you would like to file a lawsuit, you might want to wait to file a complaint CCRB because the evidence in the CCRB proceedings could be used against you in your lawsuit.
If you miss the filing deadline, you can still file a lawsuit for federal claims. You have up to three years to file this. Consult an attorney as soon as possible to discuss your options.

*This handout is an excerpt from The Consequences of Criminal Charges: A People's Guide, published by The Bronx Defenders. It is for informational purposes only and is NOT a substitute for legal advice. It is up to date as of November 2013.

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