From what I understand, a police officer can stop and harass (detain and ask questions with zero apparent "probable cause") all their hearts desire without being required to tell the detainee what the reasonable suspicion is (if any).

Before taking a cop to court for harassment or for deprivation of civil rights and liberties, how can a person (or their lawyer) know whether they have a case or not? (So that they don't go to court like blindfolded, not knowing the facts)

Let's say I happen to look like one of their people on their "wanted" list. If he doesn't tell me, I could certainly believe he was harassing. How can this type of confusions be avoided with the current laws that allow the cops to lie?

In case there is no way of knowing, thus no way to sue (or much harder than it would otherwise be), would this seem like a loophole that practically abolishes the 4th amendment?


In case they really can't tell you the reason because it's somehow better that way (and if we like the idea of innocent until proven guilty), why do they not just say so, like "sorry, but I cannot tell you that" instead of making up all kinds of mind boggling and inteligence insulting excuses?

It almost seems like they have to articulate "a" reason 😕

All answers here say that cops are not required to give a reason for the stop. Can somebody back that up with an actual law or case law please?

  • I'm not sure I understand what you're asking. You don't have to know that your rights were violated in order to sue. You file your suit explaining why you think your rights were violated, and the judge or jury will decide if they actually were. I don't see in what sense this "practically abolishes" the fourth amendment. Commented Mar 10, 2019 at 19:10
  • A law suit costs a lot of time and money. If that's what it takes just to get that piece of information, I consider it a big enough barrier to stop the 4th in its tracks.
    – Alex Doe
    Commented Mar 10, 2019 at 19:33
  • Well, what's the alternative? It's kind of inherent in the justice system that you won't know the outcome of your case until the court decides. Of course, a good lawyer can estimate the strength of your case and your chances of winning, as David Siegel points out. Commented Mar 10, 2019 at 19:37
  • I am not talking about the "outcome of the case". I am talking about a piece of info needed in order to start the case
    – Alex Doe
    Commented Mar 10, 2019 at 21:18
  • Then maybe I am not understanding your question. What piece of information do you mean? The question of "were my rights violated" does not have an answer, legally speaking, until a judge rules on it. Commented Mar 10, 2019 at 21:19

4 Answers 4


In case there is no way of knowing, thus no way to sue, would this seem like a loophole that practically abolishes the 4th amendment ?

The 4th amendment only means that the officer needs a probable cause/reasonable suspicion to detain you. It absolutely does not mean that he has to tell you what that is. In fact, not telling you what the probable cause is is often a part of the officer's job because, if you are indeed a perpetrator, letting you know what the suspicions are could make you do things that would allow you to escape justice.

There is certainly always a way to sue i.e. file a lawsuit, for which you do not need to know what the probable cause was. Instead, you contend that there was not any. And from this point the officer has to tell the court what it was, if any.

If he fails to provide one, you win and get redressed for harassment — this is how your 4th amendment rights work.

If he does provide a good probable cause, you lose because in this case you either:

  • actually did something suspicious and knew there was a probable cause; OR
  • jumped to the conclusion that the officer harassed you when he was simply doing his job.
  • 1
    I don't think the fact that cops are looking for drug carriers is a secret. Either way, is it worth undermining the enforceability of a constitutional amendment so dear to us while confusing everybody and creating resentment?
    – Alex Doe
    Commented Mar 11, 2019 at 5:44
  • 1
    @AlexDoe you seem to be mixing up enforceability and your readiness to file a lawsuit. If your resentment has grounds then you really should take the cops to the court and get redressed. Otherwise you should accept that this world is not ideal and there will be disappointments.
    – Greendrake
    Commented Mar 11, 2019 at 7:36
  • 1
    So, you are saying that the best that our justice system offers to the people, after being bullied around by cops, is to have to spend money on costly lawsuits practically blindfolded, not knowing the facts?
    – Alex Doe
    Commented Mar 13, 2019 at 2:58
  • 2
    @AlexDoe you could go pro se instead of hiring lawyers. The court application fees are not that high as lawyers' bills. You could file a judicial review to challenge the law. Or you could organize a community of cop bully victims and make a difference collectively. There are options out there.
    – Greendrake
    Commented Mar 13, 2019 at 3:39
  • 1
    I think one way to view the OP's questions is - "Is there an easy way to find out the truthful most legitimate reason the officer had for stopping me, even if it is at some point in the future." Commented Mar 16, 2019 at 3:52

That is not easy. It depends on exactly what the officer did or did not do, and on what the person detained did. Did the officer provide any reason for the detention? was that reason plausible? Was there any circumstance which might have made a detention plausible?

(I recall reading a court opinion that certain conduct is sufficiently unusual that it justifies a stop even with no evidence of unlawful activity. The cited example was carrying an axe on a bicycle at 2am.)

If a plausible reason can be asserted for the stop, it is not likely to be held an infringement of rights.

Also, a person considering if rights were infringed in an actionable way should consider what harm or damage was inflicted. If a person was stopped and questioned briefly, but then allowed to proceed without an arrest or a citation, it would be hard to assert that significant damage was done, and a court is not likely to hold the officer's action is grounds for suit. An arrest is a larger imposition, and physical abuse yet larger. Specific circumstances may increase or decrease the effect of unwarranted detention in a particular case.

Given this level of detail, an experienced civil rights lawyer can probably make a good estimate of the chances of success with a section 1983 duit, and injunction against a police department, or some other legal tactic, and the probable upfront costs of proceeding.

Note that the question "Were my right infringed?" is significantly different from "Can I enforce my rights through a court action such as a section 1983 suit?" There ae a good many cases in which rights were almost surely infringed, but the chance of a court awarding damages or other relief are small. There is a tendency to favor officers even when their conduct is probably wrong but not really outrageous, and there is an inclination not to permit lawsuits for what are perceived as trivial harms. This can work injustice, but the cost/damage to the system if every minor harm was the subject of a suit would be significant.

  • Are you saying that harassing with zero probable cause is ok in the eyes of the law unless it is accompanied by arrest of physical abuse/harm ?
    – Alex Doe
    Commented Mar 10, 2019 at 18:41
  • @Alex Doe: No I am not saying that. I am saying that the more harm that was done, the easier it will be to sue. Also, if a pattern of harassment can be shown, that will be easier to take action on than a single instance. This may result in injustice in some cases, but for better or worse, it is how the current system is structured. As for exactly how to frame a suit or other legal challenge to an apparently whimsical stop where no significant harm was done, that IMO crosses the line into "specific legal advice", so I won't go there, but such a challenge may be possible. Commented Mar 10, 2019 at 18:46

IANAL but my understanding is that Qualified Immunity protects police officers from all but the grossest of malpractice.

  • If the police officer blatantly violates your 4th Amendment rights, they will not enjoy qualified immunity;
  • If the state prosecutes you, then you will have an opportunity to challenge any 4th Amendment violations; but
  • If the officer non-blatantly violated your 4th Amendment rights and the state chose not to prosecute you then the very best you could hope for by challenging the officer is that the court will take note of it and the next time the officer violates another sucker's rights in the exact same way it will be a blatant violation and thus remediable, but no redress for you.

However, in general, the judiciary does not believe peasants have 4th Amendment rights. So the police have more or less a license to run roughshod over you.


None of the answers here take into account a "Terry Stop". As long as the officer does not arrest you he/she has the right to stop you and investigate if there is reasonable suspicion.

Reason for a Terry Stop is normally defined this way.

"When a police officer has a reasonable suspicion that an individual is armed, engaged, or about to be engaged, in criminal conduct, the officer may briefly stop and detain an individual for a pat-down search of outer clothing." https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/terry_stop_stop_and_frisk

Giving reason for the stop is not required unless you are arrested or the stop goes on for a long time.

  • I think most people can infer what is meant, but I changed it for you.
    – Putvi
    Commented Mar 29, 2019 at 22:08
  • Thanks. I think precision in using legal terms matters here. Many people do not understand the difference between, say "reasonable suspicion; and "probable cause". Commented Mar 29, 2019 at 22:48
  • All answers here say that cops are not required to give a reason for the stop. Can somebody back that up with an actual law or case law please?
    – Alex Doe
    Commented Mar 30, 2019 at 1:09
  • @AlexDoe, the laws and case law on that will very from state to state and the policies of police will differ from department to department. There isn't just one thing to cite here, because during a "Terry Stop" you shouldn't be detained for long. Your right to be notified comes during an arrest in most places. quora.com/…
    – Putvi
    Commented Mar 30, 2019 at 22:00
  • @AlexDoe Read this over, espically the "Duration of Stop" section. fletc.gov/sites/default/files/imported_files/training/programs/…
    – Putvi
    Commented Mar 30, 2019 at 22:04

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