An encounter with the police can involve numerous variables and bring feelings ranging from panic to confusion. If you are pulled over, what should you do? What should you not do? Here are tips to help you best behave—and communicate—during any surprise encounter with the police.
Being stopped by law enforcement can create a stressful experience which can turn bad quickly. Though the burden of de-escalation doesn’t fall on you, the citizen—it falls on the police—don’t assume that police officers will always carry on in a way that protects your safety, or that a police offer will respect your rights even after you assert them. You can help prevent a bad situation from happening by staying calm and not showing hostility toward police officers when you encounter them.
A cop is only allowed to detain you if they have reasonable suspicion that you are involved in a crime. Reasonable suspicion should not be a mere hunch. The reasonable suspicion should be clearly stated in words. In law, this is referred to as the “articulate suspicion” provision.
Police are not allowed to move you unless you are under arrest. If you are under arrest, you should immediately ask for a lawyer. Avoid responding to any police inquiries without your lawyer present.
The main difference between detention and arrest is whether you are being charged with a crime or not.
Say you are walking when police order you to stop and begin asking you questions. You are not free to leave. Does this mean you have been arrested, or are you simply being detained? Determining which can be a challenge because law enforcement officers can have reasonable suspicion to detain you without having probable cause to arrest you.
If police discover incriminating evidence, detention is allowed. However, police may find the evidence to be probable cause for an arrest. If you are arrested and a criminal defense attorney persuades the court that, instead of merely detaining you, the officer arrested you without probable cause, then the evidence becomes inadmissible.
Reasonable suspicion is a legal term applicable in various criminal law contexts, most often where searches and seizures are involved. Reasonable suspicion requires police to have an objectively reasonable basis for suspecting criminal activity. Reasonable suspicion is a term lower than probable cause. It calls for less than 50% certainty that the detainee has done something illegal.
Probable cause is supported if the facts support an objective belief that the person detained has committed a crime—or if the place or item to be searched has evidence of a crime. Having probable cause to search you, your vehicle, or other property means the police have found evidence to support that you may have committed a crime, or that the place or item they’re searching contains criminal evidence.
You have the right to remain silent. For example, you don’t have to answer any questions about where you are going, what you are doing, or where you live. If you do wish to exercise your right to remain silent, say so aloud to the officer(s).
You do not have to accept a search of yourself or your belongings, but if police suspect a weapon they may pat down your clothing.
Stop the vehicle in a safe place as quickly as possible. Turn the engine off—if it’s dark inside, turn on the internal light. Keep your hands on the steering wheel or up on the dashboard in plain sight as the officer approaches the car.
Both drivers and passengers have the right to remain silent.
A passenger can ask to leave. If allowed to leave, do so silently.
Unless you’re concerned about getting a DUI or it’s raining, roll your window down as soon as you come to a stop. Wait for the officer to ask for your license, registration, and other information.
You have the right to refuse a consensual search of your vehicle. Your refusal may not stop an officer from carrying out a search against your will, but making a verbal objection before or during the search may help to preserve your rights in any later legal proceeding.
Stay silent and ask for a lawyer immediately. Do not give explanations or excuses. Do not make any decisions without a lawyer, for example, signing any document, paper, form, etc.
You have the right to a phone call. Police are not allowed to listen to your phone call to a lawyer. If you call anyone else, they can and often do listen.
Write notes of everything you remember, including police badge and patrol car numbers. Also, if there were any witnesses, get their contact information. If you have been injured, take photographs of your injuries and seek medical treatment immediately. If you have been arrested, be sure to tell your attorney about your concerns and share your notes about the encounter with them.
You can also file a complaint with the police department's internal affairs division or civilian complaint board if you wish to do so.
Stand at a safe distance and use your phone to record a video of what is happening. Do not try to interfere with what the police are doing or stand close enough to obstruct their movements.
You have the right to observe and record plainly visible events in public spaces. Don’t try to hide the fact that you are recording. Police, when performing their jobs, are not entitled to a reasonable expectation of privacy. (The people police are interacting with may have privacy rights that would require you to notify them of the recording.)
The key to any police encounter is to stay calm and stay safe. Do not panic or do anything stupid (like trying to flee). If you are driving, pull over immediately, place your hands on top of the steering wheel, and leave them there until police arrive at your window.
A situation will escalate if you match or exceed the degree of aggression an officer is exhibiting. Do not yell back if an officer yells at you. Speak at a normal, respectful volume. If an officer is positioned uncomfortably close to you, remain still and unimposing. Try your best to keep calm and stay in control of your emotions.
Ask if you are free to go. If the officer says yes, leave calmly. If they say no, ask why and then exercise your right to remain silent. It is not a crime to be arrested or detained for refusing to answer questions.
Unfortunately, encounters with law enforcement can turn out to be bad, and there are officers who are particularly confrontational and difficult for civilians to deal with. It can be challenging to deal with police, especially if you are stressed or worried about being confronted or arrested. Fortunately, with patience and emotional restraint, you can effectively defuse such a situation.
Some confrontational police may try to pressure you into talking or admitting to something you did not do. Just keep the conversation short and keep your cool. Do not engage in a “factual" conversation with police, as some can get you to say things that they can later use against you. Consistently demonstrate that you respect the police, even when dealing with some confrontational police—in both your words and actions.
Remember you have the right to refuse to answer questions without an attorney present. Tell the police in an even tone and calm manner that you want a lawyer and/or do not want to answer questions without your lawyer present.
When you are being charged with a criminal offense, every moment counts. At Aaron Delgado & Associates, our criminal defense attorneys are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to provide experienced, knowledgeable criminal defense for our clients. Give us a call at 386-222-6677 now for a free consultation with one of our skilled criminal defense lawyers.