California police can’t arrest people simply for avoiding them

On Behalf of | May 30, 2024 | Criminal Defense |

For some people, the sight of a police officer walking down the street or cruising nearby can be reassuring –- at least as long as they know they haven’t done anything wrong. For others, under the same circumstances, it can be terrifying.

That difference in perception, often based on race and/or one’s community’s historic experiences with law enforcement, was the reason behind a recent California Supreme Court ruling. The justices ruled that police in the state can’t detain someone who’s on the street simply because they tried to avoid or hide from them. That alone doesn’t give them grounds for “reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.”

This decision not only affects what will constitute a valid detention and questioning in future cases. It could potentially get other cases invalidated if an individual’s arrest and charge were based on an illegal stop.

The case behind the ruling

The ruling was made in the case of a Los Angeles man who was arrested because police say they suspected that he was carrying drugs and a firearm after they saw him apparently trying to hide behind a car when he saw their vehicle approach. They arrested him immediately. He tried to get the evidence they found in his nearby vehicle thrown out, but two lower courts ruled that the detention and arrest were legal.

Police organizations have decried the ruling, calling the state’s high court “out-of-touch” with what it means to live in and police high-crime areas. However, as one justice noted in a concurring opinion, “Many individuals — including, particularly, people of color — commonly hold a perception that engaging in any manner with police, including in seemingly casual or innocuous ways, entails a degree of risk to one’s safety.” She added, “Given this context, it is apparent why attempting to avoid police officers reflects, for many people, simply a desire to avoid risking injury or death.”

What can police still do if they’re suspicious?

One justice noted that police can still “approach people in public, engage them in consensual conversation, and take note of their appearance and behavior. They can also “consider what they see in plain view” to arrest them.

Certainly, in the moment, all of these legal standards can blur together. It can be hard to know if you have been illegally detained and if that illegal detainment led to your arrest. The best way to protect your rights and determine whether the charges against you are valid and the evidence was legally obtained is to get legal guidance as soon as possible.