When Can Wisconsin Police Stop and Question a Person?

Somewhere between a police officer letting you go about your business and arresting you and hauling you to jail is the officer stopping you on the street. Being detained by a cop is not the same thing as getting arrested. But it can be intimidating and potentially lead to an arrest if the officer decides they have probable cause against you.

The police in Wauwatosa and across Wisconsin cannot arrest you without following specific procedures. The same is true for detaining you in public. State law sets out what an officer may stop and question you. Here is an overview of those rules.

  • The officer must reasonably suspect that you have committed, are committing or are about to commit a crime
  • They must identify themselves as a police officer
  • They can detain you only for a “reasonable” period of time
  • They are allowed to ask for your name, address and “an explanation of [your] conduct.”
  • The questioning must be “in the vicinity” of where the officer stopped you

As you can see, no officer is allowed to conduct a full interrogation, take you against your will to the police station, or hold you for hours. The purpose is to let the police investigate when they observe potentially suspicious behavior but lack probable cause for an arrest. If the stop does not lead to probable cause, the officer must let you go.

What if the police did not follow the law?

That is the law as written. In the real world, the police don’t always follow the rules. If an officer violated your rights while investigating or arresting you, you might be able to get any resulting evidence thrown out of court. This is known as the “fruit of the poisonous tree” rule.