Know Your Rights

Several years ago, I was trundling along Highway One north of town taking a friend home. It was late at night, we were both wearing pajamas, and neither of us had identification. Predictably, Dan Porter pulled me over for exceeding the speed limit (by approximately seven miles an hour, as I recall). Clearly, he was fishing for something better than a traffic violation.

I explained that I didn’t have my license with me, and repeated the number for him twice as well as providing him with my registration. Luckily for me, I was driving my own car, so the registration matched the information on file for my identification. I was courteous and respectful with him, but also firm, and declined his request to search my car. He let me go, probably deciding it wasn’t worth the trouble, because I knew my rights and wasn’t afraid to assert them.

Most of us don’t know our rights, and I would recommend that if you aren’t acquainted with your rights in regards to police, that you watch this video produced by a former ACLU staffer. It’s a little cheesy (especially when the cops sniff a bong), but well worth watching. He goes over three major interactions between civilians and police–traffic stops, on the street stops, and house calls.

Police are intimidating. They know this, and use it to their advantage. Most officers are just trying to do their jobs, but they have also been trained in techniques which are designed to result in arrest, even if it means compromising your rights. Resist the intimidation, know your rights, and avoid unfortunate scenes.

Three main rights apply to police interactions:

The fourth amendment protects you from unreasonable search and seizure. To use the fourth amendment, take sensible precautions–make sure you don’t have illegal items in plain view and that they are secured in a private area. When pulled over, roll up your windows. If asked to exit a vehicle, lock the door behind you. Likewise with a house call–step outside and close the door to speak with police. Make it clear that you have no intention of allowing them into your car, home, or personal belongings by saying: I do not consent to a search. If you are searched illegally, any evidence recovered could be thrown out of court, along with your charges.

Some exceptions to the search rule: if police have probable cause, they can search you. Probable cause means evidence, so make sure that private things are kept in private. Don’t throw beer cans out of your car, don’t leave a pipe lying on the seat, and so forth. A hunch is not grounds for a search. There are also a few situations where consent is implied: entering a commercial aiport with the intent to fly allows airport security to go through your bags and over your person. Crossing an international border allows border officers to search you and your vehicle. Entering private property such as a concert or club gives permission for a search, although once you are inside you can deny search requests and leave. Also, if you are arrested, you can be searched, but the goal here is avoiding arrest.

The fifth amendment protects you from testifying against yourself, and also entitles you to due process of law. Don’t confess to a crime–in a traffic stop, for example, when the officer says “do you know why I pulled you over,” don’t say “uh, I guess I was speeding,” say: “no sir/ma’am, why did you pull me over today?” Police love using open ended questions and turns of phrase to get you to say something: but you can turn it right back to them by responding to a question with a question.

Do not lie to police.
If answering a question would incriminate you, then don’t answer. The cop might hassle you in the short term but ou cannot oblige you to respond. Protect yourself by not talking too much. The police love talkers–you can dig yourself an excellent hole.

Finally, the sixth amendment entitles you to counsel, and don’t be afraid to demand a lawyer. You can explain that you prefer not to answer any more questions without a lawyer present, and leave it at that.

In traffic stops, the officer can ask for license (identification) and registration because the license serves as your permit to drive a motor vehicle. Memorizing your license number is an excellent idea for those times you are caught without it, although technically you should not be driving without a physical license in hand. (Or pocket, it’s hard to shift while holding a license.) The officer cannot search your car without probable cause, however, so don’t give it to ou. Keep your car clean and tidy to make it clear that there’s nothing concealed in the pile of garbage in the back seat. Ask if you are free to go–the officer must have a reason to detain you, because otherwise it’s an obstruction of due process. And don’t fight tickets for traffic infractions, especially if you have illegal material in the car. Accept the ticket calmly and politely, and dispute it in traffic court.

On the street, you are not required to give identification in most states. Once again remain courteous, but firm. Don’t run from or attempt to evade police, respond to questions with questions, and keep your cool. Remember: you do not need to incriminate yourself and you are not obligated to respond to questions from police, even innocuous ones like “where are you headed tonight?”

The Supreme Court has ruled numerous times that your house is your most secure place. In order to enter a residence, police must have a warrant. Think of them like vampires–they can’t enter unless you invite them in. If police come to your home, step outside and close the door to deal with them. Ask them why they are there and respond to their concerns. Do not consent to a “required” or “routine” search of your home, because there is no such thing. Demand that they present a warrant if they wish to enter your home.

But also be a responsible host. Keep an eye on your guests. Make sure all entrances to your home are secure. Close windows and blinds. Be aware of what’s going on, because ultimately you are responsible for a party given at your home. Above all, please don’t let your guests drink and drive.

Some general tips in dealing with police: always be courteous and respectful. These are men and women doing their jobs, and there’s no reason to hassle or back talk them. Call an officer Sir or Ma’am and use other respectful language with ou. Do not lie, raise your voice, or attempt to intimidate back. You are a rock. Remain calm but firm, respond politely while making sure they don’t overstep their boundaries. Do not touch or resist police, because it can land you with a felony charge. Be aware that especially in high crime areas, police are sensitive to their safety, so don’t make sudden movements and make sure your hands are showing at all times. In traffic stops, for example, place your hands at 10 and 2 on the wheel and wait for the officer to ask for your paperwork. (Imagine how it looks for a policeman’s point of view: ou pulls the car over and the driver immediately leans over out of view to get something out of the glove box. That something could be registration, but it could also be a weapon.)

If you are reasonable with police while firm about your rights, they are going to be reasonable with you.

And above all, remember the “big three”: I do not consent to a search, am I free to go, and I will not say anything further without a lawyer present. Police can be scary, or not: ultimately, it’s your choice.