What are my rights if I'm stopped by law enforcement?

Recent events--particularly the death of Philandro Castile, who was shot to death by police during a traffic stop--have caused significant concern about police brutality and unnecessary use of force. Many people are left wondering how to handle an interaction with law enforcement--not only to protect their rights, but also to preserve their lives. 

The ACLU has released information regarding your rights and responsibilities if stopped or questioned by police, immigration agents, or the FBI. It is important to keep in mind that if you feel your rights are being violated in a traffic stop, becoming aggressive with law enforcement may give them "cause" for use of force. Try to avoid escalating a situation, and call a lawyer to handle a civil rights violation during a police encounter.

According to the ACLU, you have the following rights during an interaction with law enforcement:

  • You have the right to remain silent. If you wish to exercise that right, say so out loud. 
  • You have the right to refuse to consent to a search of yourself, your car or your home. 
  • If you are not under arrest, you have the right to calmly leave. 
  • You have the right to a lawyer if you are arrested. Ask for one immediately. 
  • Regardless of your immigration or citizenship status, you have constitutional rights.

Typically, law enforcement will not advise you of these rights. You may be aware that police are required to "read you your rights" or recite a Miranda warning advising you of your right to remain silent and your right to an attorney; however, they are not required to read your Miranda rights until an arrest. During a traffic stop or a "walk and talk," you are not under arrest and will likely not be informed of your rights unless or until you are arrested. Even if you are not informed of these rights, they are in place even before an arrest.

In addition to letting an officer know you will be exercising your right to remain silent, it is important to determine whether or not you are being detained before walking away--you do not want to be perceived as attempting to flee. Ask the officer, "Am I being detained or am I free to go?" If the officer replies that you are free to go, then politely say that you are leaving, and walk away. If you are being detained, you must provide identification, but beyond that, you do not have to give any other information. Instead, say, "I choose to remain silent. I want to see a lawyer."

Unfortunately, some officers will become angry if a person insists on protecting his or her own rights. Remember, remain calm, keep your hands where the officer can see them, and do not become aggressive or otherwise escalate a situation. If you are placed under arrest, do not resist arrest. Instead, remain silent except for your insistence upon speaking to an attorney who can challenge an unlawful arrest and civil rights violations.

Current relations between police and the public are often tense in light of recent events. The ACLU also reminds people of their responsibilities during an encounter with law enforcement:

  • Stay calm and be polite. 
  • Do not interfere with or obstruct the police. 
  • Do not lie or give false documents. 
  • Prepare yourself and your family in case you are arrested. 
  • Remember the details of the encounter. 
  • File a written complaint or call your local ACLU if you feel your rights have been violated.

Remember: stay calm, provide truthful identification, and exercise your right to remain silent and your right to an attorney. If your insistence on protecting your rights creates animosity with law enforcement, remain calm and polite and do not resist arrest, obstruct the officer, or become belligerent. It is possible to be compliant without sacrificing your rights, and doing so, in this day and age, could save your life. 

If you are arrested following an encounter with law enforcement, call an attorney as quickly as possible.

Image Credit: Victor

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