Interacting with Authorities

What are my rights in a police encounter and how can I assert those rights?

What are my rights in a police encounter, and how can I assert those rights?

Here are some suggestions for how to behave if you’re approached by police:

  • Don’t try to run away unless you’ve received verbal confirmation that you are free to go.
  • Don’t physically resist.
  • Follow the officer’s instructions
  • If you feel your rights are being violated, verbalize your concerns and lack of consent, but do not physically resist.
  • Do not provide false information or false identification.

You do have rights when you are approached by the police on foot and always have the option to assert those rights. Keep in mind that it is not always the best choice to exercise those rights in every situation.

  • You can ask if you are free to leave.
  • You have the right to remain silent. Inform the officer if you wish to remain silent.
  • You do not have to consent to a search of your person or belongings. This includes a breathalyzer or field sobriety test.
  • At your first opportunity after the encounter, you should write down everything that happened and what every person said. You should keep this document safe and do not share it with anyone, other than an attorney when obtaining legal advice.

How do I know when it is better to assert my rights, and when it is better not to?

Unfortunately, there is no simple answer to that question.

What you will achieve from asserting your rights can change over the course of the encounter and depends on what the officer knows, not what you know.

Take an example where you are walking down the street, doing nothing wrong, and an officer comes up to you and asks for your identification. This might be a mere encounter, which means you’re free to leave and you do not have to identify yourself. But if the officer received a report that someone fitting your description just robbed a store in the area, you’re in an investigative detention, and you’re not free to leave. The officer can detain you until he is able to identify you, and until he can confirm or dispel the suspicion that gave rise to the investigation. So, in both situations, it is helpful for you to ask if you are free to leave because it will clarify what rights you have in that moment and forces the officer to legally justify any further detention.

A noise complaint is another good example. If the officers come to the door, and you march out declaring that you know your rights and are asserting them, they’ll probably start writing out the noise citation right away. If you come out and have a conversation with them and are polite and respectful and turn down the noise, you might just get a warning.

Bottom line? You have rights and can raise those rights during a police encounter in a polite and respectful way.