Know Your Rights When Interacting With Police

Most people don't interact with law enforcement often. Because it is a new experience, it's common to feel nervous when interacting with law enforcement officers. When you interact with police, you must understand your constitutional rights.

This article offers information about your rights during several interactions with police officers. Specifically, this article covers:

  • Your rights during a traffic stop
  • Your rights when you witness a crime and police interview you
  • Your rights when police suspect you of a crime but have not arrested you
  • Your rights during and after an arrest

This article also provides links that have more in-depth information about these topics. For help navigating your specific case, contact a criminal defense attorney.

Interacting With Police During a Traffic Stop

Law enforcement officers may pull you over if they reasonably suspect you engaged in criminal activity. Below are a few examples of reasonable suspicion that can lead to a traffic stop:

  • An officer sees you driving over the speed limit
  • An officer runs your license plate and sees you have an active arrest warrant
  • An officer sees you swerving between lanes or driving erratically

Drivers who see a patrol car's lights on behind them must safely pull their vehicle over to the right side of the road. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) suggests drivers keep both hands on their car's steering wheel until the police officer tells them otherwise.

Driver's Obligations During a Traffic Stop

Generally speaking, traffic officers can decide how they will handle your traffic stop. Typically, an officer will begin the conversation by asking the driver for the following information:

  • A driver's license or other form of identification
  • Proof of car insurance
  • Proof of the vehicle's registration

State law generally requires drivers to provide some form of documentation. Failing to do so may lead to a traffic ticket or a misdemeanor arrest.

If you do not have ID, police will ask you to provide your name and date of birth. Lying about your identity in this situation is a serious crime.

After getting your documents, the officer will check police databases for active warrants or driver's license suspensions. The officer typically must take you into custody if there is a warrant for your arrest. Similarly, if the state has suspended your license, the officer will not allow you to drive away from the stop.

Driver's Rights During a Traffic Stop

Drivers and their passengers can remain silent during a traffic stop to avoid making potentially incriminating statements. But, in most situations, the vehicle's occupants must answer questions about their identity.

In some states, even minor violations of the transportation code could lead to an arrest. Many officers, though, will not arrest a cooperative driver if they can simply write a citation.

Even in the case of a suspended license, the officer has the choice of calling a wrecker and sticking you with a towing bill or allowing you to call a friend to pick up your vehicle.

The arresting officer has some control over what happens to your vehicle and how comfortable your arrest experience will be. Some officers may note your cooperative nature when the judge sets your bail. That could save you money and allow you to spend less time in custody.

Vehicle Searches

The Fourth Amendment protects you from unreasonable governmental searches and seizures. This protection also extends to your vehicle.

But people have a lower expectation of privacy in their vehicles than in their homes. To search a home, police officers generally need to get a search warrant. But they can sometimes perform warrantless searches of vehicles.

Police officers may only search a vehicle if they have probable cause that the driver or passengers are committing or have committed a crime. Police may develop probable cause in several ways.

For example, police may search the vehicle if they see contraband in plain view. If the driver admits to having narcotics in the vehicle, they may also search the vehicle. If the officer sees an open beer in the cupholder, they may search the car.

Officers may search your vehicle without a warrant if they arrest you, but only in some situations. Officer safety at risk is one situation. Another is if there is a need to preserve evidence of a crime to prevent tampering by the person charged. They may search the car immediately or impound it and search its contents later.

A car that gets impounded and searched is for inventory purposes and not to look for evidence. But, if police find evidence of a crime during a routine inventory search of a lawfully impounded car, it will likely be admissible in trial.

If an officer has probable cause to search your vehicle, they do not have to ask for your permission. Sometimes, a police officer may not have a reasonable basis to establish probable cause. In that case, the officer may still request to search your vehicle.

Drivers do not have to consent to a requested search. If you agree to their search, the police may search your entire vehicle. Consent to search the vehicle typically includes the right to search unlocked containers. But, you may limit the consensual search to only specific areas of the car. Their search does not violate your Fourth Amendment rights because you agreed to it.

Suppose a local police officer searches your vehicle without your consent or probable cause. During the search, they find incriminating evidence and arrest you. You may challenge any incriminating evidence they may find during your criminal case. The Fourth Amendment's Exclusionary Rule bars courts from considering evidence from an illegal search and seizure.

Traffic Stops for Impaired Driving

As stressful as a routine traffic stop might be, the stakes go up when an officer suspects the driver is under the influence of alcohol or drugs. A traffic stop for speeding or expired plates could alert the officer to impaired driving if they observe any of the following:

  • Slurred speech
  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Lethargy
  • The odor of alcohol or intoxicants

Once an officer makes these observations, the focus of the traffic stop will shift to gathering evidence of driving under the influence (DUI).

If police suspect you of impaired driving, they will ask questions about alcohol and drug consumption. If you refuse to answer or lie, the officer may challenge you.

For example, they may claim they smell alcohol or cannabis, among other things. This is a common tactic to goad drivers into admitting at least some responsibility, such as:

  • "I only had two beers."
  • "I smoked some cannabis earlier in the day."

Keep in mind that the officer is likely recording your interaction. The prosecution can use even weak admissions in an eventual court proceeding.

Next, the officer will ask you to leave your vehicle for field sobriety tests. This may include:

  • Looking at your eyes (the horizontal gaze nystagmus test)
  • A balance test with complicated instructions that require divided attention (the walk-and-turn and one-legged stand tests)
  • Other cognitive tests that involve counting or writing
  • A breathalyzer test

The police do not need to get a warrant to perform these tests. If you fail these tests, the officer will likely arrest you on suspicion of DUI.

Drivers may refuse to perform the sobriety tests, breathalyzer, and any later blood-alcohol tests. But doing so may violate your state's implied consent laws. Violating an implied consent law may lead to the government suspending or revoking your driver's license or losing other driving privileges.

Some states, like Arizona, allow drivers to consult an attorney before submitting to a blood-alcohol test. Other states don't. Drivers may ask to contact an attorney before taking a blood-alcohol test. If your state allows you to do so, the officer must let you contact an attorney before administering the test.

Interacting With Police on the Street

If a police officer approaches you on the street to ask you questions, the law generally does not force you to answer their questions. Some states have laws requiring you to identify yourself. But you can usually refuse to answer any other questions.

If police suspect you have committed or will commit a crime, they may take further action. For example, they may perform a stop-and-frisk search if they believe you have a weapon. A stop-and-frisk (also known as a Terry stop) involves a pat down of your person. They generally do not need a warrant to perform a stop-and-frisk.

If police approach you on the street and ask questions, you may ask if they are detaining you. If they are not detaining you, you generally can walk away without answering any questions. If they are detaining you, you must identify yourself in some states. You don't have to answer any questions.

An officer may interpret a refusal to answer as suspicious behavior. If the police see you as a suspect, this tactic will likely lead to detention. Basic cooperation could prevent unwanted difficulties if you have not committed a crime.

Like vehicle searches, a police officer may ask for your consent to perform a search. If you agree to their request, they may search your person. If they find incriminating evidence on your person, the court may allow it at trial due to your consent. If you deny their request, the officer generally can't search your person unless they have a search or arrest warrant or probable cause to search.

Crime scene investigators look for witnesses to help them piece together what happened. As a witness, a law enforcement agency may ask you to give a written statement for their report. The officer or a prosecutor may contact you with follow-up questions. Usually, your signed statement will give them everything they need to determine what charges to file.

Interacting With Police as a Suspect

Suppose the police or an investigator calls and asks to meet with you. They may ask to meet you in person or at a police building to discuss things further. In that case, they may suspect you of a crime.

You have several options in such a scenario. You have several options in such a scenario. You could honor their request. If you do, and the police have enough evidence against you, you may make it easier for them to arrest you.

Or, you may ask them to provide their questions in writing. Requesting the questions allows you to prepare your responses carefully. You could also offer to give the investigator a statement drafted by your attorney (if you have one).

If the police gather enough evidence to show probable cause that you have committed a crime, they can get an arrest warrant. They must present their evidence to a judge or magistrate who reviews it and decides whether to issue the warrant.

If you know there is an arrest warrant for you, you can voluntarily turn yourself in. But before doing so, contact a criminal defense attorney. A defense attorney can ask the police to recall (withdraw) the warrant in exchange for a promise that you will appear in court. But whether that is an option depends on your state's laws and procedures. Only a judge or magistrate can recall an arrest warrant in many states. Your attorney can also coordinate your surrender with the expectation that bail will get posted immediately.

Interacting With Police After Arrest or Detainment

Suppose a police officer stops you and tells you that you can't leave. At that point, you are technically in police custody. Your rights change depending on whether the police detain or arrest you.

Police detain someone to investigate a potential crime further when they don't have enough information to arrest a suspect. An arrest happens when police have probable cause to believe someone committed a crime.

Following an arrest, police must inform a suspect of their rights before they begin questioning them. The Miranda warning (from the Supreme Court case Miranda v. Arizona) tells suspects of the following rights:

The police do not have to inform a suspect of these rights before arresting them. The Miranda rule only requires police to read these rights before they begin a custodial interrogation.

A suspect who simply remains silent does not gain protection against self-incrimination. Instead, the suspect must invoke their rights. To do so, they can state something like, "I invoke my right to remain silent and to an attorney."

Once a suspect invokes their rights, the police must stop questioning them. But, a suspect who willingly offers statements after they invoke their rights waives their protections.

What if the police neglect to read you your rights? There is a common misconception that a Miranda violation invalidates an arrest or causes the court to dismiss your criminal charges. But that is not true. At best, the court may exclude some of your statements from the trial. Even if the court throws out some of your statements, it will not necessarily dismiss your case. The government may also use other legally obtained evidence in court.

Interacting With Police After Arrest

Following an arrest, police will book the arrestee. As part of the booking process, police will fingerprint and photograph you. Even if the police searched you before the arrest, they will likely search you again. Suspects usually have one last chance to disclose if they have a concealed item. If police located any undisclosed contraband during this search, the arrestee could face more charges.

While in custody, police may ask you to sign a written statement. The written statement allows the suspect to give their side of the story. Suspects have no obligation to give a statement or answer questions. Before submitting a written statement, consider contacting an attorney. The written statement may serve as valuable evidence for or against you in a later criminal proceeding.

Rights After Arrest

A defendant going through the criminal justice system possesses many different rights. For example, a guiding principle is that the prosecution must prove the defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. This presumption applies to misdemeanor and felony cases.

The defendant also has a right to know their criminal charges. The court usually informs them of their charges at an arraignment hearing. The arraignment is usually the defendant's initial appearance in court. The prosecutor decides which charges to file, and they often base their charging decisions on the police officer's report.

In most states, a defendant has a right to a preliminary hearing. During the hearing, the government must show probable cause that the defendant committed the alleged crimes. If the state establishes probable cause in a felony case, it may proceed to a grand jury. There, the prosecutor will present evidence to a grand jury, who will decide whether to indict the defendant.

The defendant has a right to a fair and speedy trial. They also have a right to confront their accusers. They also have a right to counsel, even if they cannot afford to hire an attorney. Defendants may present evidence at the trial and subpoena witnesses to testify at the trial. A subpoena is a court order compelling someone to appear in court or produce evidence.

A defendant has a right to enter into a guilty plea. Generally, the defense and prosecution can negotiate different aspects of the plea. Defendants often agree to plead guilty to lesser charges in exchange for a shorter prison sentence.

The case proceeds to sentencing if the defendant gets convicted or enters a guilty plea. Before sentencing, a probation officer may create a report summarizing relevant information about the defendant. The report may include information such as the defendant's criminal record and the circumstances of the crime(s) at issue. It may also include statements from crime victims. The court may consider these things when it determines the defendant's sentence.

A defendant has a right to appeal their conviction. If the defendant receives an acquittal, the prosecution cannot appeal it.

More Resources

This article provides summaries of your rights when interacting with police. For more information, consider reading the following articles:

Facing Criminal Charges? Talk to an Attorney

Interacting with law enforcement is intimidating. So, it's helpful to know your rights and the police officer's limits within each interaction. Ultimately, police have a lot of discretion about their interactions with people. If you are facing criminal charges, consider contacting a criminal defense attorney near you. An experienced attorney can give you valuable information about the following:

  • General information about criminal law and criminal procedure
  • Specific defense and litigation strategy on your pending criminal charges
  • Whether to enter into a plea agreement or proceed to trial
  • Aggravating or mitigating factors that may affect criminal sentencing
  • Appellate strategy and procedure

Learn more about your options by contacting a criminal defense lawyer today.

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