U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government, Department of Justice.

NCJRS Virtual Library

The Virtual Library houses over 235,000 criminal justice resources, including all known OJP works.
Click here to search the NCJRS Virtual Library

Law Enforcement Myths: Voluntary Compliance vs. Voluntary Contact

NCJ Number
Law and Order Volume: 57 Issue: 6 Dated: June 2009 Pages: 26,27,29
Randy Means; Pam McDonald
Date Published
June 2009
3 pages
This article debunks persistent, pervasive myths among law enforcement officers about the legal parameters that distinguish and govern a police officer's "voluntary contact" with an individual and an investigative detention that requires an officer to have "reasonable suspicion" that the subject detained has been involved in criminal activity.
The U.S. Supreme Court has held that when a police officer approaches a subject, identifies himself as a police officer, and politely asks if he/she may speak with the subject, then a reasonable person does not feel restrained or required to communicate with the officer. The key for creating a voluntary contact is to request cooperation in a manner that suggests an option, or the officer may simply initiate a normal, noncoercive conversation. Even when reasonable suspicion to detain or probable cause to arrest exists, the use of a voluntary contact is often preferable because it does not carry the restrictive legal requirements that apply to an investigative stop or an arrest. It is also likely that a voluntary contact will not precipitate defensiveness in the subject, which would impede the free flow of information. A subject who is less defensive is also more likely to consent to a search. A subject's voluntary compliance with an officer's instructions or demands is not the same thing as a voluntary contact. Officers must choose their words and manner of delivery carefully, such that a reasonable person would not believe that he/she is legally required to do what the officer says or risk a legal sanction.