In Florida, the police do have the right to approach people and suspects on the street and ask questions. The police do not need reasonable suspicion or probable cause that a person is engaged in criminal activity to approach someone and ask questions. This includes asking for identification like a driver’s license. However, what happens next can turn a police encounter into a detention or seizure. If a police encounter becomes a detention or seizure under the search and seizure laws, the police need to show specific evidence indicating criminal activity in order to detain a person, search the person and even ask the person if he/she would consent to a search.
The primary issue is whether the subject reasonably believes he/she is free to leave. If a judge finds that a reasonable person would have felt free to leave the encounter, that is not a detention, and the police are free to ask questions. For instance, when a police officer approaches a person on the street, that police officer is free to ask questions and ask for ID since, at least theoretically, the person is free to walk away. On the other hand, if the person provides his/her driver’s license and/or other property like a wallet, and the police officer does not return the property, that person does not reasonably believe he/she is free to leave. It is not reasonable for a person to believe he/she can walk away from a police encounter when the police officer still has his/her property.
Therefore, when a police officer approaches a person and ask questions, that person is free to refuse to answer and/or walk away. If the police officer does not let the person leave, then it likely becomes a detention that requires evidence of criminal activity. If the person provides an ID or other property to the police officer, and the officer keeps it for a period of time, the encounter also likely becomes a detention because a person will normally feel compelled to stay to retrieve his/her property.
If an encounter becomes a detention and results in the police officer finding drugs or other evidence on the person, that evidence may get thrown out of court if the police officer cannot justify the detention and search with specific evidence of criminal activity. The remedy for detaining and/or searching someone without a legal basis is for the evidence found by the police to be excluded from the case in many situations.