Seizures; The Three Tiers of Police-Citizen Encounters under Georgia Law

In assessing Fourth Amendment issues in a given case, lawyers should be cognizant of the three tiers of police-citizen encounters. These different levels of police encounters are meant to balance a person’s reasonable expectation of privacy against society’s legitimate interest in enforcing criminal laws. These tiers are designed to establish when, where, and how police should interact with members of the public in accordance with constitutional law. This article will explain the three tiers and the legal rules surrounding them.


1st Tier Encounters


In a 1st tier encounter, or “mere encounter,” between a person and a police officer, a person is not considered to be “seized” for 4th Amendment purposes. U.S. v. Mendenhall, 446 U.S. 544 (1980). This is because 1st tier encounters are when citizens and police come into voluntary contact with each other.  A “seizure” of a person only occurs when a reasonable person in the citizen’s situation would not feel free to “disregard the police and go about his business.” Florida v. Bostick, 501 U.S. 429 (1991). To determine whether a seizure has occurred, a judge will analyze the encounter to determine if there was a show of authority or an application of physical force. California v. Hodari D., 499 U.S. 621 (1991).


2nd Tier Encounters


A 2nd tier encounter is referred to as an “investigative detention.” The most common situation is when a police officer pulls you over in your car. This is also referred to as a “stop.” Under this tier, a police officer may seize a person for investigative purposes if the officer has reasonable suspicion to believe a crime has been or is about to be committed AND the officer may conduct a limited pat down or frisk of a lawfully seized person if there is a reasonable belief the person is armed and dangerous. Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968).


“Reasonable Suspicion” is more than an unparticularized hunch, but less than probable cause. These investigative detentions must be temporary, lasting no longer than necessary to effectuate their purpose and terminate once the suspicion has been dispelled.


3rd Tier Encounters


The 3rd tier contemplates the arrest of a person. A person is under arrest if he is not free to leave and a reasonable person in his situation would not think the detention was temporary. Williams v. State, 293 Ga. App. 842 (2008). Because an arrest is more intrusive than a stop, this tier requires more legal justification. Here, the standard of proof is “probable cause.” Probable cause to arrest exists when facts and circumstances based on reasonably trustworthy information would lead a prudent person in believing that a suspect is committing, has committed, or is about to commit a crime. Beck v. Ohio, 379 U.S. 89 (1964). Probable cause is a “fair probability,” less than a preponderance of evidence, but greater than reasonable suspicion. Illinois v. Gates, 462 U.S. 213 (1983).


If law enforcement officers violate the above rules, certain evidence in the case may be suppressed (ruled inadmissible) by a judge upon a motion to suppress.


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