Being stopped by police officers can be a stressful and nerve-wracking experience. Knowing your legal rights will help you protect yourself from police misconduct and abuses of power such as illegal searches and seizures.
What are my legal rights if I am stopped by the police?
If you are stopped by the police, you have the following legal rights:
The Right to Remain Silent
You have the constitutional right to remain silent. This right almost always allows you to refuse to answer questions that the police ask you, including your name, where you live, where you are coming from or going to, or what you are doing. You can exercise your right to remain silent even if the police detain you, arrest you, or put you in jail.
Do not answer the police officer’s questions that you do not feel comfortable answering! You have the 5th Amendment right under the US Constitution to not incriminate yourself. Police officers are trained to ask you questions that may trip you up. And most people that are stopped by the police, whether guilty or innocent, are very nervous. Being nervous can cause you to answer something the wrong way or say something that just isn’t true. Be careful. Be polite, be courteous. But, don’t answer questions that you do not feel totally secure answering. You can simply not answer, remain silent, and ask to speak to an attorney.
However, many states consider it a crime to intentionally refuse to give the officer your information after you’ve been arrested. Texas Penal Code § 38.02 makes it a crime to intentionally refuse to give your name, address, or date of birth to a police officer who has lawfully arrested you and requested the information. The statute only applies after you have been arrested and does not require you to answer any additional questions.
The Right to Leave
If a police officer stops you, you can politely ask if you are free to go. If the answer is yes, you can calmly walk away from the encounter. If the answer is no, then ask the officer if you are being detained. These days almost every police interaction is being recorded. Ask these questions calmly and politely.
If the police do not detain or arrest you, you have the right to exit the police interaction. Police officers cannot legally detain you without a reasonable articulable suspicion that you have committed, are committing, or are about to commit a crime. They cannot arrest you without a warrant or probable cause that you broke the law. If these standards do not apply, the encounter is considered consensual, and you have the right to end the conversation at any time.
The Right to Refuse a Search
The answer is no. You can refuse to consent to a search of your person, your vehicle, or your home. While police officers are sometimes allowed to pat down your clothing if they suspect that you might have a weapon, they cannot search you without proper justification or your consent. Therefore, if an officer requests to search you, your car, or your house, you have the right to say no. And I always tell people to say no. You don’t know what is in your car! What if a friend, co-worker, repairman, car wash attendant dropped something in your car that you don’t know about? Be police, be courteous, and just say no. Ask if you are free to leave. If the officer says you are being detained then ask to speak to a lawyer.
The Right to Film the Encounter
You have the right to film any encounter with the police. When you are lawfully present in a public place, the First Amendment gives you the right to photograph or film anything in plain view, including police officers performing their duties. This means if you are stopped by police, you can film the interaction, as long as you don’t interfere with the performance of their duties.
As soon as you are stopped by an officer or pulled over, start filming. You are simply documenting your experience. There is nothing illegal about it. Again, politely ask if you are free to go. If the answer is no, then ask the officer if you are being detained. And ask why you are being detained. These days almost every police interaction is being recorded by the officer’s dashcam or bodycam. Ask these questions calmly and politely.
The Right to an Attorney
If you are placed under arrest, you have the right to an attorney, and if you cannot afford a lawyer you have the right to have one appointed for you. You should ask to speak to a lawyer immediately if you have been arrested. Asking for an attorney signals to the officer that you know your rights and by law requires him to cease his questioning of you. Remember that you have the right to remain silent.
What should I do when stopped by the police?
If you are pulled over by police for speeding (or any other reason), you should do the following:
- Pull the vehicle over as quickly and as safely as possible.
- Make sure you stop in a safe location.
- Turn off the vehicle.
- Roll down the window that the officer approaches.
- Start filming the encounter.
- Keep your hands on the wheel (passengers can place their hands on the dashboard).
- Provide your driver’s license, registration, and proof of insurance if the officer asks for them.
- Avoid sudden movements.
- Keep your hands visible at all times.
- Step out of the vehicle if the officer asks you to do so.
- Exercise your right to remain silent.
- If you are arrested, ask for a lawyer immediately.
In addition to the steps above, if the police stop you for DUI (or DWI, as it’s called in Texas), you should also:
- Refuse to participate in field sobriety testing. You are legally permitted to refuse to take these tests without penalty. There are dozens of reasons to refuse the roadside tests. The tests are designed for you to fail. Simply put, the more tests you do the more evidence they are collecting against you.
- Refuse to take a breathalyzer unless you are entirely confident that you will pass. Refuse the test if you have had anything to drink. The machines are extremely unreliable. You can even fail a breathalyzer if you haven’t had anything to drink!
Carrying a Firearm
If you are pulled over or otherwise stopped by the police while you are carrying a firearm, it’s essential that you calmly tell the officer that you are carrying a firearm and that you have a license to do so. Then, listen to and follow the officer’s instructions.
What should I not do when stopped by the police?
If you are stopped by the police for speeding (or any other reason), you should never consent to a search of yourself, your possessions, or your car. Never! Police officers must cite exigent circumstances, probable cause, or get a warrant to search you or your car. If you consent to the search, you lose your rights to fight the search later. If the police ask permission to search you, your possessions, or your vehicle, you have the right to refuse. Never consent. Always refuse a search.
If you are stopped by the police for DUI, you should never agree to participate in field sobriety testing. No matter what the officer tells you, you are not legally required to comply with a request to perform field sobriety testing. Again, the tests are designed for you to fail. The more tests you do the more evidence they are collecting against you.
Carrying a Firearm
If you are stopped by the police while carrying a firearm, you should never take actions that may alarm the officer or cause them to fear for their safety. Never reach for the weapon unless the officer instructs you to. While it’s essential that you inform the officer that you are legally carrying a firearm, make sure you do so calmly and unambiguously. Simply blurting out “I have a gun” could be misinterpreted as a threat.
When should I contact a defense attorney?
If you were arrested after being stopped by the police, you should contact a criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. If your rights were violated during the stop, an experienced criminal defense lawyer may be able to have evidence against you thrown out and get your case dismissed. Even if your rights were not violated, the sooner you contact a defense attorney the sooner they can start developing a strategy and gathering evidence to fight the charges against you.
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