Things Cops Do That Are Illegal: What a Police Officer Can and Cannot Do

A police officer should be seen as a beacon of safety in the community. They have special privileges to help them do this. However, sometimes cops abuse these rights and break the law.

It can be hard for citizens to respect police officers when they see some actions they take as unlawful. It is important to know what police officers are legally allowed to do to make sure that your rights are respected.

One main aspect of a police officer’s job is to protect the community and its citizens from crime. To do this, cops are legally allowed to take some actions that regular citizens can’t.

Most of these actions do have limits and if they are done in excess, it may cross the line into illegal or unlawful behavior. Do you know the things that cops are and are not allowed to do? The answers may surprise you.

Search and Seizure

Search and seizure is when an officer conducts a reasonable search of a person or a place if they have probable cause. This usually means that they must have good evidence or a strong belief that components of a crime will be found. If they do not have probable cause or they should have gotten a warrant, their behavior may be unlawful. This means that any evidence they find will not be admissible in court.

In many cases, when there is no fear of imminent harm or destruction of evidence, a police officer must first get a warrant from a judge to conduct a search or seizure. Once the officer has this warrant, they can execute it and search or seize the items listed in the warrant.

They may be able to expand the scope of the warrant when they spot evidence in plain view. However, they are not allowed to enter closed rooms and they cannot break into locked boxes or safes – unless those items are specifically listed in the warrant.

A controversial form of the search and seizure is the stop and frisk. This is when a police officer temporarily stops a person for a non-intrusive stop. Again, the officer must have probable cause that a crime has been committed. They are not permitted to randomly stop and frisk anyone walking by and they cannot discriminate on who they choose to stop based on race or religion. This issue gained notoriety for police officer use in New York City.

Being pulled over while Driving

Again, the police must have probable cause to pull you over when you are driving. They can pull you over for a traffic violation like speeding or having a taillight out. They can also pull you over if your car matches the description of one that was fleeing a crime scene. They must have a reason to pull you over and you do have the right to ask why you were stopped.

While the officer can ask you to get out of the car for safety reasons, you are not required too. You also do not have to take a breathalyzer. However, it is probably best to comply with the officer’s request in these situations to avoid escalation. If you feel that you are being illegally stopped, do what the officer says and then fight the case later.

The police are allowed to search your vehicle in certain situations. If your car is searched without one of these conditions, it may be an illegal search. These include:

  • If they ask you and you consent to let them search it
  • If they see illegal contraband in the car that is in plain view
  • They can search the car if they arrest you for a criminal action
  • If they have probable cause that a crime has been committed – this is usually done when the officer smells alcohol or other substances in the car

 Police Force

A police officer is allowed to use some force against a suspect. This is especially true if the officer believes that their or other’s lives are in danger or if the suspect flees. Police are trained to use the minimum amount of force needed to arrest a suspect.

Their actions may be illegal if the force they use is greater than the minimum needed. For example, using a taser on someone willing to accept their arrest would be a violation of the use of force.

A police officer is not allowed to use unreasonable or excessive force. These types of behavior are usually called police brutality. Often these cases involve police officers firing on suspects who do not have a gun or using excessive force once the suspect has already been detained.

Police actions face even more scrutiny now with the implementation of body cameras and technology. Often, witnesses or suspects at the scene pull out their cameras and begin recording police interactions. It is important to note that some jurisdictions have rules on recording police officers while they are working. 

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