Know Your Rights During A Police Encounter

From answering questions to requesting a lawyer.

Amidst the clash between protesters and law enforcement in Ferguson, Missouri, stemming from the shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown on August 9 — not to mention the nationwide protests, rallies, and vigils these events have inspired — now seems like a good time to make sure that you know your rights when interacting with police officers.

Related: National Guard Called Into Ferguson

For example, do you know which information you have to provide when you’re stopped by the police, or how to let an officer know that you do not consent to a search? The vast majority of this information — which I’ve summarized below — is readily available online thanks to the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Lawyers Guild, and the Legal Aid Society’s YouTube channel, and I highly recommend reading and watching all of the resources they provide on the subject.

1.) You have the right to remain silent.

If you are stopped by a police officer, you have the right to remain silent, which is protected under the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution. If you would like to exercise this right, the ACLU recommends that you say so out loud: “I am exercising my right to remain silent.”

The NLG cautions that certain states have “stop and identify” statutes on the books that require detained individuals to provide information about their identity to law enforcement. “It’s always best not to guess what the law is because if you’re wrong you could be in trouble,” Anthony Naro, a public defender in New England, told me.

“If a police officer approaches you under any circumstance and asks for your name and you don’t want to give your name, you can explain that to the police officer. However, that is going to likely prolong your encounter with the police officer, so…it might be best to politely give the officer your first name.”

2.) You have the right to refuse to consent to a search.

If you do not wish to consent to a police search of your person, your car, or your home, you have the right to refuse it under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution. State calmly and clearly: “I do not consent to this search.” Doing so may not prevent a search, but you will be able to claim that you did not consent to this search later in a court of law.

3.) You have the right to leave if you are not under arrest.

If stopped on the street, you can always ask the police officer: “Am I being detained, or am I free to go?” You may excuse yourself from the conversation if he or she is neither detaining nor arresting you.

4.) If arrested, you have the right to a lawyer.

You do not have to answer any questions if you are arrested. The ACLU and the NLG both advise that you calmly and clearly state that you’d like a lawyer present before answering any questions: “I am exercising my right to remain silent and would like to speak to a lawyer.”

handcuffs Getty Images

It is important to note that even though these are your constitutional rights, there is always a chance they might be violated during a police encounter. If you feel that your rights have been violated, the ACLU cautions that there is nothing you can do in that moment. Raising your voice or fleeing could result in charges of resisting arrest or obstructing justice.

Instead, the ACLU and the NLG both advise that you write down every detail from the encounter that you can remember — the officer’s badge number, his or her patrol car number, whether or not he or she was visibly obscuring this information from your vision — and hold onto those notes so that you can challenge the officer in court later on. Seymour W. James, Attorney-in-Charge of the Legal Aid Society’s Criminal Practice, says in a video on the LAS’ YouTube channel that you should also see if there are any witnesses present when you were stopped, just in case you might need to call on them at a later time.

“If the officer is wrong on the law, you can always take it to court,” New England public defender Naro explained to me. “At the end of the day, if your goal is to physically face and leave that encounter alive without physical harm then the best you can do…is to be quiet, to be polite, and to not resist.”

This sentiment is echoed by Justine M. Luongo, Deputy Attorney-in-Charge of the LAS’ Criminal Practice, in another of the organization’s “Know Your Rights” videos: “The most important thing is that you don’t resist being stopped.” Her colleague, Seymour W. James, states something similar in his aforementioned “Know Your Rights” video: “I would be as cooperative as I can with them just to ensure your own safety.”

Knowing your constitutional rights during a police encounter will not necessarily protect them from being violated, but it will arm you to know what was violated and how so that you can properly seek justice at a later date.

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