Most people have been stopped by a police officer at least once in their life. Whether it is a traffic stop for going just a little fast on Highway 101, to reporting a crime, or being contacted pursuant to an investigation, it can be an intimidating experience that the average person is unequipped to handle in a way that supports their best interest.

There is a good chance that at the time of contact, most people don’t realize what police officers are trained to do each and every time they talk to anyone: An officer’s main objective when making contact, is to determine if any illegal action has occurred. Officers are not typically looking to exonerate someone they suspect of committing a crime. Should an officer have any suspicion that you are involved in illegal activity (whether you were or not) they are trained to assemble the evidence needed to prove a case against you.

What many people don’t realize is the wide latitude an officer has under the law to conduct an investigation.  An officer may lie to you. They may withhold information from you. They may act like your friend. They may tell you they are trying to help you, when they are not.  They may detain you as long as they have “reasonable suspicion” you are involved in criminal activity, and they will. This is why it is so important that every individual know their rights when contacted by the police.

If you are not being detained, you have the right to leave upon contact. It is your choice whether you would like to speak to the officer, or not. If you are unsure whether you are being detained or not, you may ask the officer.  If they say no, you are within you rights to calmly walk away without answering any questions.  If you are being arrested, you have a right to know why. Make sure to always have a calm demeanor when addressing a police officer. Most times officers will respect your assertion of your rights with little objection, so long as you do not insult, act out, or flee.  By acting out, fleeing, or becoming belligerent you may be giving the officer the reasonable cause he or she needs to detain you.

Once detained, you are not obligated to answer questions from the officer aside from basic identifying information.  Of course, during a traffic stop you are also required to provide your driver’s license, insurance and registration. Do not lie to the officer about your name or address. You are being detained because you are under investigation. When you consider that the investigatory questions are being asked solely to build a case against you, the importance of your right to not answer these questions becomes clearer. If you do not wish to answer questions, you should tell the officer in a clear and concise manner that you will not be answering their questions without a lawyer present.

If an officer asks for consent to search your person, house or vehicle, you are never required to provide it. Many times an officer will tell you they will just get a warrant if you don’t consent, and that it will take a long time, or that they will just search anyways.  That is fine, they can do that, but you do not have to consent to it, nor should you.  The fact is, often times an officer will ask for consent, because they do not have enough evidence to search without it. Be clear in your denial of consent, but do not physically restrain an officer from searching. You are always within your right to deny consent to search.  Should the officer choose to search anyways, it is up to them to justify that that search in order to use anything found against you in court. 

An officer may conduct a “pat search” of your person upon detaining you to check for weapons.  They should not be reaching into pockets or manipulating any items during this search, and it is limited to the outside of your clothing. However, an officer will probably not ask for consent and will conduct this search whether consent is granted or not.

Upon arrest, it is almost never a good idea to answer any further question or make any additional statements to any officer without an attorney present.  The officer has already made up their mind that you have committed a crime and nothing you can say at that point is likely to change their mind.  If an officer reads you a Miranda warning, you are under investigation if not already under arrest. Clearly invoke each right.  If you invoke your right to remain silent, and then voluntarily begin speaking, you have waived your right. Clearly ask for an attorney as soon as possible.  “Do you think I should have an attorney?” is not sufficient.  Be clear: “I want my attorney.”

If you have not been arrested, or detained, and an officer asks you to come to the police station just “to answer some questions,” it is always a good idea to ask to have time to contact an attorney to advise you and facilitate any meeting, if appropriate.

Many times, knowing your rights and exercising them when you are accused of a crime is the best defense you have from being unjustly accused. Andrian and Gallenson wants you know your rights and that is why we recommend that all citizens read and have a copy of the ACLU’s know your rights guide.

The ACLU’s guide “What To Do If You Are Stopped By Police, Immigration Agents or FBI” PDF is located here:

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