Legal advice on how to keep those pesky police stops routine and without incident
Lately there have been several videos posted where individuals have been stopped by the police. Often the video will show someone asserting their “rights” only to be arrested or assaulted by an angry cop. Being detained by the police is always an unsettling experience and the encounter can turn violent if not handled carefully. If you are a person of color and a young male, it is unfortunate that it’s even more critical that you learn how to effectively communicate with the police officer.
And remember, while I am a lawyer, I am not your lawyer. You should always seek legal advice from an attorney licensed in your state. This article is only intended to be a general guide, not legal advice, to address some of the issues you may encounter. It is not a complete rule book.
When you are stopped by the police, whether you are on the street or in your car, the first few minutes of the stop are critical for establishing how you are treated by the police. If you are on the street keep your hands at your sides and do not put them in your pockets.
If you are driving, keep your hands on the top of the wheel and do not roll your window all the way down until you can gauge the situation. While you know you are not armed and dangerous the officer does not. Speak in an even tone without being belligerent. Never touch an officer, this is considered an assault and will land you in jail.
Stop and Identify Laws
When you are stopped, usually you will be asked for identification. Many states have passed “stop and identify” laws that require you to state your name. If you are walking down the street you are usually only required to truthfully give your name and not produce identification. If you are driving you are often required to produce a valid driver’s license and proof of registration/insurance. The laws vary state by state and can usually be found by conducting an internet search for your state.
If you are on the street, after providing your name, you should ask the officer if you are being detained. This point is critical. Say nothing more until you determine if you are being detained. The officer will probably not give you a “yes or no” answer. If you are still not sure, ask again and say nothing more. Do not answer another question. If he answers “yes” at this point stop talking until you are read Miranda rights.
The only other thing out of your mouth should be a request for a lawyer and that you are invoking your right to remain silent. I cannot stress this enough because this is where clients get into trouble. Don’t be helpful and don’t try to clear things up because if you are not free to go, it means you are under arrest and a suspect in some crime. If he says “no,” you are not being detained, it is up to you whether you want to cooperate or calmly walk away.
If you are unsure as to whether it is an actual cop pulling you over, call 911 and let them know that you are being pursued by a police officer. Ask them to verify that it is an actual officer before you stop. If you are near an open business, pull your car into the lot.
If you are stopped while driving or as a passenger, there is no question as to whether you are being detained or not. Don’t bother to question whether the stop is lawful or not because they will find a reason to stop you and it will hold up. Again, you should keep your hands where the officer can see them.
If the officer asked your permission to search the car, your response should always be “no.” This is not a time to be helpful. Remember however, that if the police believes your car contains evidence of a crime, they can search your car without consent. There is a separate rule for “detection dogs.” A search around your car by a canine has been ruled by the Supreme Court as a legal search with or without your consent. The only restrictions on “drug sniffing dogs” are that it must be done within a reasonable amount of time.
Remember that police misconduct cannot be challenged on the street. If you are arrested remain calm and do not resist the officer even if you feel the arrest is unjust. Stay silent, it is your right. Let your attorney speak for you. If you feel your rights have been violated contact the ACLU and file a complaint. Most importantly, do not escalate the situation by your actions because on the street the cops will always be “right” even if they are not.