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What to Do if You Are Stopped by a Police Officer

The Baltimore County Police logo.
The Baltimore County Police Department logo.

In the course of carrying out their duties in law enforcement, it frequently becomes necessary for police officers to stop a person and make an inquiry such as:

  • What is your name?
  • What is your address?
  • Do you have any identification?

But sometimes a very routine encounter might cause a person to feel intimidated or respond in a manner that gives rise to conflict or suspicion. The Police Department strives to provide service to everyone in the community fairly and equally.

We hope the information on this page will be helpful in explaining why an officer might have to stop and question a citizen and reduce elements of conflict when confronted by an officer. This information will explain what to expect if a police officer stops you for questioning and also provide some guidelines on how to respond to the questioning process. You are cautioned, however, that this is not a legal advisory.

Investigative Stops

When law enforcement representatives question a person, there are underlying reasons. They might be checking out a complaint phoned into police by someone in the neighborhood. They might have received a report of some criminal activity that has just occurred in the area. Your presence might indicate that you are a potential witness who would be able to provide valuable information in an investigation. In some cases the officers' observations might lead them to think you are having trouble and need assistance.

The best way for them to clarify the situation is to ask questions. With all due respect to citizens' rights, officers have a responsibility to properly investigate matters which might threaten public safety or involve breaking the law. Their questions are not necessarily an accusation and your cooperative response can alleviate potential conflict.

Street Stops

Sometimes problems arise when it seems as if a police officer has stopped to question you for what appears to be no reason at all. Since the time factor may be crucial in investigating a possible crime, police officers are trained to observe and evaluate a situation, and to act if they have a reasonable suspicion that you may in some way be involved in an incident.

There are many factors that officers take into consideration in determining if they have a reasonable suspicion to stop and question someone. Every situation is different, but some factors they may consider are:

  • Police may have a minimal description of a suspect that you might resemble.
  • You might be in an area where a crime has just been committed.
  • Your actions appear to be suspicious (i.e. running from an area where a crime has just been committed) and you act even more suspiciously when you see the police officer.
  •  Someone might have pointed you out as a suspect.

If an officer does stop and question you, your forthright responses will usually quickly resolve the situation. If the officer hasn't told you why you have been stopped, you may inquire. If, despite these considerations, you feel you do not want to respond, the officer must respect your right not to answer. However, your cooperation would be most helpful in aiding a police investigation.

Traffic Stops

A police officer issuing a citation.

A traffic stop is one of the most frequent encounters between citizens and police. Usually, police officers will pull a vehicle over if they have reason to believe that some offense has occurred. You might feel anxious, irritated at the delay or concerned about a possible citation. However, officers are also concerned about possible threats to their personal safety while performing their duties. 

The following recommended procedures will ensure the traffic stop can be completed quickly and safely. 

  • When signaled by an officer, safely pull over to a place out of traffic flow.
  • Sit calmly with your hands visible on the steering wheel. If you have passengers, ask them to sit quietly with their hands visible.
  • Avoid sudden movements or ducking in the seat as these actions can unnecessarily alarm the officer.
  • If it is nighttime, turn on your interior lights when you pull the car over. For safety reasons, the officer will want to visually scan the car's interior before proceeding.
  • Do not get out of your car unless the officer asks you to step out. If you are asked to do so, comply in a calm manner.
  • A sure way to put an officer at ease is to communicate your actions in advance by telling the officer what you will be doing before you move. Also, you can ask to see the officer's identification.
  • If requested, you must give the officer your driver's license and vehicle registration. Tell the officer where it is before reaching for it—especially if it is tucked away in the glove box or some other unusual place.

Traffic Citations

If you are issued a citation, you will be asked to sign it. Signing is not an admission of guilt but an acknowledgment that you have received the citation. While you might wish to clarify the circumstances of the citation, keep in mind that your guilt or innocence can only be determined in court. Arguments over or protests about the situation cannot be resolved in the street.

Police at Your Door

Two police officers speaking with people in front of a brick building.

Usually, if a police officer knocks on your door, it is for one of the following reasons:

  • To interview you or a member of your household as a witness to an incident that is being investigated
  • To make a notification
  • To serve an arrest warrant
  • To serve a search and seizure warrant

Whenever police come to your door, they should willingly provide identification and state their purpose for being there.

However, when serving a warrant, officers may dispense with the knock and announce requirement if they believe some emergency circumstances exist that necessitate a speedy or unannounced entry. Examples of such circumstances include, but are not limited to, protection of life or the possibility that evidence might be destroyed.


If the officers have a warrant, you may ask to see a copy of it, although you must comply with the warrant and admit the officers into your house.

Arrest Warrant

It is not necessary for the arrest warrant to be in the officers' possession for them to make an arrest. An arrest warrant commands a police officer to arrest the person named in the warrant. It also authorizes the officer to search the residence of the named individual in order to locate the person to carry out the arrest. An arrest warrant does not permit the entry and search of a third party's residence for the named person without a search and seizure warrant.

Search and Seizure Warrant

A search and seizure warrant is a document supported by an affidavit and signed by a judge commanding a police officer to search a specifically named premises for the property or person described in the warrant. The officer will provide the resident with a copy of the warrant after reading the contents of the warrant to them. Once the search is completed, a list of the property seized will be provided. An officer may execute a search and seizure warrant at any time of the day. The owner or occupant does not have to be present. When this occurs, a copy of the warrant and inventory will be left at the residence in a conspicuous location.

No Warrant

Police officers may conduct a search without a warrant in certain situations. Two main examples of when this might occur would be in situations involving the emergency circumstances noted above or searches done with the consent of a person who has authority over the property. If you consent to a search, you have the right to withdraw that consent at any time during the search. Just clearly tell the officers that you wish the search to stop.

Police Identification

Generally, police officers will:

  • Provide their name upon request
  • If in plain clothes, identify themselves when taking action
  • Inform a person about the reason for being stopped or questioned
  • Only use the amount of force necessary to effect the arrest of a suspect. Excessive force is not tolerated by the department.
Revised May 1, 2020         


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