How do I know that guy was a REAL cop?

Suppose I am stopped by a plain-clothes officer in an unmarked vehicle. The only identification he offers is a badge. Since I don’t know a real badge from a fake, would I get in any extra trouble (i.e. “interfering with the duties…”) if I resisted his attempts to interogate me and simply left the scene?

More specifically, (IOW the whole, true story):

Let’s say I’m driving along a back country road and pull over to take a leak. A guy wearing jeans and a t-shirt pulls up in a green minivan, gets out and introduces himself as detective so-and-so of the local P.D. and shows a badge of some sort. He starts to question me about what I’m doing here, where do I live, where am I going, etc.

I indulged him and answered all of his questions honestly, but later I thought “Hey, how do I know that guy was a real cop? And what would have happened if he was, in fact, a real cop and I simply said “Yeah, right, you’re a cop. Sure buddy. Have a nice day.” and attempted to drive away?”

Well, he had the badge. I’m sure you could’ve asked him nicely to get a black and white to come out. Or, if you had a cellphone, you could’ve called the station to verify.

I don’t think that you are required to answer any questions in a situation like that. Of course, IANAL.

If you were not under arrest, I would think that you would be free to drive away. Of course, I am not sure about that. On the other hand, why not tell him directly that you wanted verification that he was indeed an officer? (yeah, I know, easy to say after the fact, and from behind a keyboard). A cop out of uniform would probably see your concern as sound.

Getting off topic (so soon in this discussion), I do know that in New Mexico, a traffic ticket has to be issued by an officer in uniform in order to be valid.

In most places, police officers, firefighters etc. are issued picture i.d. cards. You could ask to see his i.d. Under the circumstances you describe most cops probably wouldn’t have a problem with that, although if you get really huffy I suppose some might decide to write you a ticket so you could be really sure they were cops. If there’s still doubt you could ask him to call a uniformed officer (as suggested above) or a supervisor to the scene. (If you know exactly what they call their supervisors that could be a plus. In my city sergeants and higher ranks are called “officials” within the department, but not generally by the public. If you politely tell a street cop that you want to talk to an “official,” he might infer that you have a friend or relative on the force.)

On the other hand, if the guy shows you a gun he’s either a cop or a bad guy. Either way you probably should humor him. (And there is no need for law-abiding CWP holders to respond. You wouldn’t be flashing your piece.)

A Law Enforcement Officer (LEO) is allowed to make an encounter whenever they want. During this time they will ask you questions, and you are under no obligation to say or provide anything unless you’re operating a motor vehicle. (Not sure if it applies in this case, as you were standing outside your vehicle.) You are free to leave at any time. The reason for the encounter is that the LEO is trying to get reasonable articulable suspicion (RAS) to detain you. If they gets RAS, the LEO is allowed to detain you for up to around 45 minutes, during which time they are looking for probable cause to arrest you.

In a nutshell, here is the 4-Step Program to losing your freedom:

  1. Encounter
  2. Reasonable articulable suspicion (RAS)
  3. Probable cause
  4. Arrest

#3 leads directly to #4.

Not true.

There is no rule that says up to around 45 minutes. Reasonable, articulable suspicion justifies a brief investigative stop. Forty-five minutes may be too long a time; detentions lasting even longer may also be reasonable. The totality of the circumstances are evaluated in order to determine what was brief and reasonable in any given situation.

  • Rick

Realistically, you want to end this “encounter” as painlessly as possible. A police officer can always find some grounds to form a “reasonable articulable suspicion” that you are doing something wrong. (Did you pull your vehicle completely off the roadway? Is the shoulder posted “no stopping except in emergency” or something similar? Did the cop observe you exposing yourself to take a leak? Were you trespassing on private property at the time? Does your car have any burned out bulbs? Is the license plate clean? How’s the tread on your tires? Any outstanding parking tickets?) You might have a right to drive away, but he can follow until he observes you do something wrong–and that’s a judgment call on his part. Maybe a charge would get thrown out of court, but who wants the hassle?

If the guy is a cop, the best course is to be reasonable and cooperative. And if the guy is not a cop, you could be dealing with a psycho. Either way, asking for i.d. or another officer would clarify the situation pretty quickly. Just jumping in your car and taking off doesn’t seem very smart.

Right, well, if he actually is a cop, it wouldn’t be difficult to get verification, one way or another.

But assume he’s an impostor. What do you do? If you ask to look closely at his badge or see his ID, he’ll refuse. Do you just drive off then?

In this case it was probably an officer. Some how you clicked on his radar(mental) and he is checkin you out. Now if it was some sort of imposter , all the stuff after you gave your pertinent information would be odd, weird questions and stuff like that.

Some perfect stranger comes up to me , while I am parked on or off to the side of the road , in an odd position relative to the vehicle and identifies himself as a police officer , I am going to go on first assumptions and assume he is what he says he is. Besides , all cops have a certain demeanor that you cannot duplicate easily with out having been on the street for a certain amount of time.


I don’t think there is one right answer to achernar. But even if you suspect the guy is an imposter (and refusing to show i.d. or call for back-up would be pretty strong evidence) it might be smart not to challenge him directly. You might suggest driving to a well-lit place with people around (“I wanna get my car out of the road, let’s meet at the gas station…”). That gets you to a safer place where you can call for help and gives him a chance to go away without admitting he’s a fake. (And if the guy really is a cop he’ll probably follow you.) If you say “you’re no cop” that might push a bad guy to do whatever bad stuff he’s contemplating right there.

If you suggest meeting at the gas station and he won’t let you get to your car or if he tries to put you in his car, demand that he call for a uniformed cop. If he still won’t do that you might have to either run or fight. What you decide might depend on whether you are a large fit man or a small older woman, or on whether the guy might have a weapon, or on whether you can pick up a rock or a wrench or something to use as a weapon yourself. In any case, try to attract attention from other people. Don’t yell “help,” yell “CALL 911” (a lot of people won’t intervene in a fight, but they can at least call the police). And try to remember the guy’s license number.

On the other hand, if you get into a fight with somebody who really is a cop, chances are you’ll pay a high price, either on the spot or when you get to court. There is no guaranteed right answer.

Thanks for the replies.

I got the impression (for whatever that’s worth) that he was indeed a real cop, probably off duty (thus the attire and vehicle) and maybe lived in the area and recognized me as someone who didn’t. This was a very back-country road - not paved, a couple of farms here and there, and an actual house only every few miles or so.

Given my familiarity with the surrounding area, this long, deserted dirt road in the middle of the forest is probably the kind of place where the local high-school kids come to party and cause trouble. I can imagine that suspicion is easily aroused when an unfamiliar vehicle passes through.

As far as calling for “back-up” or whatever, I had no cell phone with me and he had no visible means of communication with a P.D. dispatcher (no “walkie-talkie”, no antennas on the vehicle, etc.). He may have had a cell phone in the car, but even if he did, how do i know he’s really calling for a uniformed officer and not a group of his buddies waiting around the next bend?

Anyway, I guess my question is; Assuming he is legit, what legal recourse would the police have if the officer questioning me can identify himself only with a badge or picture i.d. - either of which can be easily faked - either of which the general public may not be familiar with - and I don’t believe him, and I refuse to stick around to find out if the others he has just summoned are really police officers?

It has to depend on the circumstances. Ordinarily (with some exceptions) unless you are actually under arrest you can walk away from somebody that you know is a cop, let alone somebody that you think might not be a cop. On the other hand, if you have just robbed a 7-11 and a guy in street clothes says “Police! Freeze!” it would probably be a mistake to say “you don’t look like a cop to me.”

This is an excerpt from a news story reporting the arrest of two different men who impersonated police:

“In a statement yesterday, Howard police said that residents may request to speak with a uniformed officer if they are stopped by a plainclothes officer driving an unmarked police car. Drivers can also turn on their hazard lights – to acknowledge the officer – and drive to a well-lighted location before stopping.”

This is from a D.C. police newsletter addressing the same issue (on page two, “MPDC issues warning…”):

This is from a Colorado police statement on the same subject:

The point is that a real cop will take reasonable steps to convince you that he is legitimate. But you can’t ignore him. If he thinks he has grounds to question you or arrest you, you don’t get some kind of immunity just by claiming that you thought he was a fake.

In general, offering to drive on to a well-lighted public place expresses your willingness to cooperate and at the same time protects your safety. If the guy has a cell phone you might ask him to let you use it to call 911 yourself. If you are behaving reasonably with a real cop he’ll probably be reasonable too.

But there is no one guaranteed right answer. If you really think the person standing in front of you with a badge, police picture i.d. and gun is an imposter, then you are looking at a pretty sophisticated level of criminality. Would someone like that really be lurking on a backwoods road waiting for a random passerby to stop and get out of his car? Is that really more likely than the possibility that he is a legitimate off-duty or plain clothes cop checking out a stranger? On the other hand, if you were in a shopping mall and someone claiming to be a cop tried to take you away from the crowds so you could “talk privately,” that might be the time to make a serious scene. You might just have to trust your instincts.

This is a link to a page of short Nolo Press articles on how to deal with police stops and related matters. Your specific question isn’t addressed, but there is a lot of practical information here.

This is a link to the ACLU’s “bust card,” on what to do during a police stop: