Way too many Americans owe their entire knowledge of law enforcement practice to TV cop procedurals (which are often not based on how the police work in real life). So it’s important to know your rights when dealing with police, as well as all the tricks and traps that they can use to get you to forfeit them.
1. No, the police are not your friends: If you take away one thing from this list, I want it to be this point. Whatever you think of the police and their function in society, the second you’re arrested or taken into custody, they are working against you. They’re trying to charge you with a crime, and everything they do (no matter how nice it seems) is a means toward that end. In other words, CSI lied to us all.
2. The police are racist: No, I’m not saying that every police officer is racist. I’m saying that the system is biased against people of color, especially black and latinx people. A Stanford University study from 2017 found that, across all 50 states, black and latinx people are disproportionately likely to be searched if their cars are stopped, even over trivial matters. FBI data shows that black people are disproportionately likely to be killed by police, even more so when you look at people killed while not resisting arrest. And a study using body cam footage shows that police are more likely to use disrespectful language (and thus escalate the situation) when they’re talking to black people vs. when they’re talking to white people. The depressing takeaway? If you’re black or latinx, Rule #1 is far more applicable than if you’re white.
3. Don’t resist: It’s counter-intuitive when faced with people wearing armor and holding weapons, but staying calm and respectful is vital. Running, bad-mouthing the officer, or reaching for anything in your waistband or pockets are all serious no-gos. This is true even if you’re being approached or arrested for unfair reasons, or if the police officer is being disrespectful to you. And, like many other items on this list, this goes double if you’re black or latinx.
4. … But don’t consent, either: Please don’t take the above rule to mean “do everything the officer asks you to.” You still have rights. The police are allowed to pat you down (if they suspect you’ve got a weapon), but you can refuse to consent to a further body search or a search of your car or home. If they do it anyways, verbally say that you don’t consent, and absolutely don’t volunteer to be searched. If you do consent, it might have implications when you’re in court. (Interesting sidenote: police officers often put their hand on vehicles when they stop them to leave fingerprints as proof that they encountered the vehicle. I’m absolutely not telling you to mess with that….but your car could probably use a wash anyway, right?)
5. The police can lie to you: They can lie to you when they stop you, they can lie to you when you’re being interrogated, they can lie to you about evidence, they can lie that you’ve failed a polygraph test, they can lie to you about having an eyewitness. And if you confess (or falsely confess) based on the evidence, guess what: it’s still legally considered a voluntary confession! (See People v. Jones (1998) 17 Cal.4th 279, 299)
6. But you’re not allowed to lie to them: Giving false information can get you charged with obstruction of justice, a felony under federal law. However, you can’t be charged with obstruction of justice for refusing to answer questions (although in some states, you do need to give your name if asked), because of your Fifth Amendment Rights.
7. Wait, what does the right to remain silent actually mean? You can’t be punished for refusing to answer questions, even if the police imply that you will, or that things will be easier on you if you cooperate (actually, refusing to make a self-incriminating statement is way more likely to be helpful to your case than co-operating with the police). The police should give you a verbal Miranda Warning to remind you of that right, but they may neglect to do so. Just say that you’re exercising your right to remain silent, and nothing else.
8. How police can “get around” it: Here’s the thing, though: the right to remain silent doesn’t mean that the police need to stop questioning you after you’ve said you’re exercising it. It just means that you don’t have to answer their questions. Sometimes, police officers will ask you questions after you’ve already said you’re going to stay silent. It’s a clever (and legal!) trick to get people to keep talking. Don’t fall for it. Just ask for a lawyer, and then stop talking.
9. Asking for a lawyer is not something “only guilty people do.”: Hiring a lawyer doesn’t make you look guilty (thanks again, CSI). If you’re an American, you have the constitutional right to a lawyer, and you should definitely take it, whether you’re innocent or guilty. Remember: the police aren’t your friends right now, and it’s good to have someone on your side with as much experience with the law as they have!
10. And it’s not something only rich people do, either: The bad news is that hiring a lawyer is expensive. The good news? A lot more people than you might think are eligible for a public defender. Depending on the regulations in your state, you may be able to apply for a public defender even if you have a full-time job and are reasonably financially stable.
11. There is no “off the record” (with one caveat): They might have turned off a tape-recorder, they may have assured you that you aren’t on record. It’s not. After you’re in custody, literally anything you say (whether it’s spoken to a police officer or a visitor or a fellow prisoner) can be recorded and used against you. There’s one exception: you can’t be recorded while talking to your lawyer.
12. What to do if these rights are violated: If you feel you’ve been deprived of your civil liberties in an encounter with police and you want justice, make sure to write down the details of the encounter as soon as possible so that you remember everything. Getting in touch with your state’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) can help you figure out what to do next, and if you actually have a winnable case. If you do, you can file a police misconduct report.
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