For the vast majority of law-abiding citizens, contact with the police is likely to be uneventful. The police have a duty to protect society and to serve the community by treating all persons fairly, regardless of ethnicity, nationality, religion or economic status.
Even so, it is important that you know your rights when having any interaction with the police. Keep in mind that some laws and rules will differ depending on which state you are in when the encounter takes place.
What to Do if You're Stopped in Public
If stopped by the police in public, such as while strolling down the sidewalk or standing outside a bar, you should:
- Try to stay calm and be polite. A routine situation can turn into a heated confrontation in the face of perceived animosity from either party.
- Exercise your right to remain silent if you choose to do so. In some states, such as Nevada, you are required to identify yourself if asked.
- Ask the police officers if it is alright for you to leave. You have the right to leave if you are not under arrest and you should do so quietly if allowed.
- You should not obstruct the officers or interfere with them carrying out their duties. You do, however, have the right to refuse to consent to a search of your person. The officers are permitted to pat you down if they have a "reasonable suspicion" that you have a weapon or have been involved in a crime. You may even be patted down if you are acting suspiciously or bear a close resemblance to a wanted person.
What to Do if the Police Come to Your Home
If the police come to your home, you do not have to allow them to enter unless they have a search warrant or an arrest warrant. Ask to inspect the warrant. Although a search warrant allows police to enter the address set out on the warrant, the officers can only conduct a search in the areas listed and for the items listed. An arrest warrant also allows police officers to enter the home of the person listed on the warrant if they have reason to believe that the wanted person is inside.
You can still exercise your right to silence even if the police do have a warrant. If you do not mind speaking to them, you can go outside and close your door. The police do not need a search warrant or probable cause to seize illegal items that are in plain sight.
What to Do if You Are Stopped While Driving
If you are driving, the police may stop you if they have a reasonable suspicion that you committed a traffic offense. Pull over safely and roll down your window enough to permit conversation. Keep your hands on the wheel unless you are asked to produce documents (license, vehicle registration, insurance) and need to reach into your pockets or glove compartment.
In non-routine stops, the police may insist on a search of your vehicle. They can do so without your consent if they suspect that your vehicle contains evidence of a crime, such as if you were seen driving away from the area where a crime just took place. Other circumstances that may encourage police to search your vehicle includes cases in which a strong smell of marijuana is emanating from the vehicle, or if they detect you (or your passenger) frantically trying to conceal something.
If you are asked to step out of your vehicle, you should do so. Fleeing is futile and will only exacerbate your legal problems. Fleeing the police in a vehicle is a felony charge; eluding the police on foot is usually a misdemeanor.
What to Do if You Are Under Arrest
If you are arrested, you have the right to know why and you should ask. Do not attempt to resist, even if you believe that there is no basis for the arrest. Your Miranda rights should be read to you and your response must be acted upon by the police. Because one of those rights is the right to a lawyer, it is advisable to ask for one immediately. If your Miranda rights were not read to you before questioning, any evidence gained by the police during the interrogation will be ruled inadmissible in court.
It is usually prudent to exercise your right to silence. In the heat of the moment, it may be tempting to say, "I do not need a lawyer; I have done nothing wrong." Conversations with the police, after having waived the right to legal representation, have proved to be the downfall of many persons. You have the right to make a local phone call. If this call is to your lawyer, the police are not allowed to listen to the conversation. If you cannot afford to hire a lawyer, you will be provided with a lawyer at the state's expense. Your lawyer will advise you on what actions are in your best interest. If you are not a U.S. citizen, you should inform your lawyer of this, as your immigration status may be affected by a criminal conviction.
Lying to the Police
Lying to the police about your identity or handing them forged documents will be the wrong reaction in all circumstances. Lying about your identity during the course of an investigation is a crime, as is giving misleading information that could derail the investigation. The laws and penalties for lying to police officers will vary from state to state. In Wisconsin, for example, the maximum penalty for obstructing an officer is nine months in jail and/or $10,000 in fines.
Making Claims Against the Police
If you believe that you have been treated unfairly or that your rights have been violated, you may file a complaint with the police internal affairs body in the relevant city or state. In some cases, you can file a complaint anonymously if you wish. Take a note of the officers' badge and patrol car numbers, and any other details that you remember from the incident. If you are injured, take photographs of your injuries and seek medical attention. If there are any witnesses, try to obtain their contact details. Personal smartphone cameras are as important as CCTV or dashboard footage, and sometimes serve as the only record of violations or abuses. You can also report the incident to a civil rights protection organization such as the American Civil Liberties Union.