Most people do not interact with the police very often and are understandably nervous. Whether those feelings stem from prior experience, media coverage of police misconduct, or a general fear of authority, police contact can be stressful.
This article offers provides information about how to interact with police officers in several common situations:
- During a traffic stop
- During a drunk driving stop
- As a witness to a crime
- As a suspect in a crime
- After an arrest
How to Interact with Police during a Traffic Stop
Many drivers get nervous every time they see a patrol car or flashing emergency lights in their rearview mirror. In this situation, the first thing to know is that the law requires a driver to slow down and move over immediately when they see the flashing lights.
The patrol officer might just zoom right past you to pursue a different vehicle or to respond to an emergency call elsewhere. But, if the police vehicle stays behind your vehicle, pull over at the first safe location, away from the danger of moving traffic. Put your vehicle in park and shut off the engine (unless there is a good reason to leave it running, such as extreme cold or heat).
Prepare yourself for the approach of the officer by turning off the radio and lowering the window. Refrain from taking any actions that could be considered rude or dangerous, such as searching through your glove box, smoking, or making a phone call. Do not get out of the car before being told to do so. That is often interpreted as aggression.
Typically, an officer will begin the conversation by asking for your identification and insurance or vehicle registration. This is a routine part of the officer's job. State law requires drivers to provide some documentation so you should do so without argument.
If you need to search in your car or purse for a document, tell the officer beforehand so there is no possibility that your actions will be mistaken as reaching for a weapon.
If you are missing a required document, you could be ticketed or even arrested. The best course of action is to simply apologize for not having it with you. If you do not have identification, you will be asked to provide your name and date of birth. Lying about your identity in this situation is a crime.
After receiving your documents, the officer will check police databases for any active warrants or driver's license suspensions. If there is a warrant for your arrest, the officer must take you into custody and often does not have the discretion to do otherwise. Similarly, if your license is suspended, you will not be permitted to drive away from the stop.
In almost every other situation, if you have violated a traffic law officers have a lot of discretion about how they will handle your traffic stop.
Remain calm and polite, regardless of your feelings or opinions about the traffic stop or police. Your attitude could make the difference between driving away with a warning, getting a traffic citation, or worse.
Other than providing your identity, you are not legally obligated to answer any other questions during a traffic stop. Assume that your conversation is being recorded. The officer may ask where you are going or where you have come from. This can be tricky. You do not want to make incriminating statements that could later be used against you. On the other hand, you will want to avoid seeming rude or argumentative.
It is better to receive a verbal warning for an expired registration sticker or a faulty taillight than a citation for the violation.
In some states, even minor violations of the transportation code are technically crimes that could lead to arrest. Most officers, however, would not arrest a polite and cooperative driver if they could simply write a citation instead. 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 come pick up your vehicle.
Even if you are definitely going to be arrested at the traffic stop, the arresting officer still has some control over what happens to your vehicle and how comfortable your arrest experience will be. Some officers will even note your cooperative nature when your bail is set. That could save you money and allow you to spend less time in custody.
Traffic Stops for Impaired Driving
As stressful as a routine traffic stop might be, the stakes are raised 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 slurred speech, bloodshot eyes, lethargy, or the odor of alcohol or intoxicants.
Once an officer makes these observations, the focus of the traffic stop will shift to gathering evidence of DUI (Driving Under the Influence).
If you are suspected of impaired driving during a traffic stop, the investigating officer will ask questions about alcohol and drug consumption. If you refuse to answer or you lie, the officer may challenge you with observations about your appearance, odor, or behavior that are consistent with intoxication. This is a common tactic to goad drivers into admitting at least some responsibility:
- "I only had two beers."
- "I smoked a little pot earlier in the day."
Keep in mind that this interaction is almost definitely being recorded, and even those seemingly weak admissions could be used against you in court.
Next, the officer will ask you to get out of 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
These tests are fairly accurate at detecting intoxication by alcohol or drugs, but they require participation from the subject, which you are not obligated to provide.
If you are healthy and stone-cold sober, completing these tests could be a way to quickly end the DUI investigation. If you are under the influence, however, performing the tests will only allow the officer to gather more evidence to support a DUI conviction. Either way, you face near-certain arrest for suspicion of impaired driving.
How to Interact With Police as a Witness
If a police officer approaches you on the street to ask you questions, you are not required by law to answer those questions. Technically, you could simply say, "I do not wish to speak to you," and walk away. (Some states have laws that require you to identify yourself.)
Refusing to answer questions can be interpreted as suspicious behavior. If the police see you as a suspect, this tactic will likely lead to detention. If you have not committed a crime, basic cooperation could prevent unwanted difficulties.
Investigating officers on a crime scene are looking for potential witnesses to help them piece together what happened. As a witness, you might be asked by police to provide a written statement for their report. If you choose to do so, do not speculate on what might be true. Stick to your personal observations.
It is possible that an officer or a prosecutor might contact you with follow-up questions, but usually, your signed statement will be enough assistance.
How to Interact With Police as a Suspect
If you are questioned by police because they suspect you committed a crime, provide as little information as possible. Even statements of denial may hurt you in court later. If you are told that you are free to leave, excuse yourself and do so immediately.
To avoid antagonizing the officer or raising suspicion, provide your name and telephone number, and say there is somewhere else you need to be. Offer to answer questions or provide a statement later.
If an officer tells you that you are not free to leave, you are technically in police custody and have been either "arrested" or "detained." In either event, the police will most likely search you for weapons. If you know that you are not in possession of any weapons or contraband, there is no reason to refuse a search.
On the other hand, if you might be in possession of incriminating evidence or contraband, you should clearly, verbally refuse to consent to a search. Do not physically resist searches in any way.
Finally, if you have a firearm, another weapon, or object that could be used as a weapon, you should NOT reach for it or display it. Politely inform the officer of its existence and location before a search is conducted. Doing this could prevent a violent and unfortunate outcome.
If you are detained, standing by quietly is the course of action. Remember that you are likely being recorded, as an increasing number of police departments are equipping officers with body-worn cameras. If the police think you might try to flee, they are likely to cuff you and place you in a police vehicle until they are ready to talk with you.
Other than basic identification, do not provide any further information. If questioned, request a lawyer and refuse to answer any questions without a lawyer present. If the police decide to arrest you, they will almost certainly inform you of their arrest decision. Even if you disagree with them, you will not be able to talk yourself out of the arrest.
If the police call and ask to speak with you, you may be a suspect in a criminal investigation. Be wary of an investigator who asks you to meet in person or come voluntarily to a police building to discuss things further.
Complying with this request is probably unwise. It is easier for police to arrest you inside their secure facility. Also, an interrogation on their home field ensures they have access to files, databases, and other officers. With complete control over the setting, they can easily record you and create video evidence.
A safer alternative is to ask for the questions in writing so you can prepare your responses carefully. Or just offer to give the investigator a statement drafted by your attorney (if you have one).
If the police are able to gather enough evidence to show probable cause that you have committed a crime, a judge can issue a warrant for your arrest. If you become aware of an arrest warrant, it may be wise to voluntarily surrender. Before you do anything, though, contact a defense attorney.
Often, a defense attorney can ask for the warrant to be recalled in exchange for a promise that you will appear in court. Your attorney can also coordinate your surrender with the expectation that bail will be posted immediately, limiting your time in jail to a simple book-in.
How to Interact with Police After Arrest
The number one concern a person has when in police custody is when they can be released. There are three ways you could be released:
- A summons or criminal citation in lieu of pretrial jail time
- A determination by a bail commissioner or other judicial official
- A formal pretrial bail hearing by a judge
Local practices, the severity of the charges, and the discretion of the arresting officer are all factors in which avenue is utilized. The police also have some influence over this, so being polite throughout your interactions could really pay off at this juncture.
As part of the booking process, you will be fingerprinted and photographed. Even if you were searched before, you will likely be searched again to prevent you from smuggling drugs or weapons into a secure facility. You will have one last chance to disclose if you have a concealed item. If any undisclosed contraband is located during this search, you could face additional serious charges.
While in custody, you may be asked to sign a written statement to give "your side of the story." While most people are tempted to have their say, any written statement could be valuable evidence against you. You have no obligation to give a statement or answer questions.
In Miranda v. Arizona, the United States Supreme Court ruled that prior to any questioning of a person in custody, the police must advise the person of certain rights. These rights are commonly called "Miranda Rights." Police might not bother to read the Miranda rights, as they are only required to read you these rights if they intend to question you. At this point, no responses you give to their questions will negate your arrest, so it is best not to answer any questions until you have spoken with a lawyer.
Asking for a lawyer will not cause one to suddenly appear. It indicates to the officers that you do not wish to waive your rights.
What if the police neglect to read you your rights? In practice, it might have no effect on your case at all. There is a common misconception that a Miranda violation invalidates an arrest or causes criminal charges to be dismissed. That is not true. At best, some of the statements you provided to the police might be excluded from the trial. But even if some evidence is thrown out, the case against you will not necessarily be dismissed. If there is other evidence of your guilt, that evidence could still be used to prosecute you.
Talk to an Attorney if You're Concerned About Facing Criminal Charges
There is no need to wait until after you are arrested or charges are filed to talk to an attorney. Apart from solving problems, legal advice can often prevent problems. If you are under suspicion for a criminal act, sound legal advice could protect your rights and preserve your freedom. Learn about your legal options by speaking with a local criminal defense attorney today.