In most cases, police officers are viewed as protection for the public, as people that are to be trusted in times of crisis. Unfortunately, police brutality, the use of unnecessary and lethal force against civilians, is becoming more and more of an issue.
If you live in the United States, you have a far greater chance of being unlawfully arrested or killed by the police than people in other countries. This greater risk means that American citizens need to be more aware and confident in their rights, especially when it comes to dealing with the police.
Despite the greater need for awareness, more than a third of Americans don’t know their basic Constitutional rights. If you fall into this category, don’t worry: you can still learn what is and isn’t legal for police to do and say to you. Let’s discuss some common measures a police officer might take, and how you can make sure these actions fall within your rights.
1. Traffic Stops
One of the most common places to encounter a police officer is during a traffic stop. Those flashing lights in your rearview mirror are one of the most heart-wrenching sights to see on your commute. Once you are pulled safely to the side of the road, remain calm: speaking disrespectfully to an officer is not grounds for an arrest, but they may be watching more carefully if you are rude.
Keep your hands where the police officer can see them, and don’t reach for anything without informing the officer first. After giving them your license and registration for your vehicle, wait calmly for them to return, without exiting your vehicle. Once they return, they should either serve you a citation or release you.
At a traffic stop, a police officer may also ask you some questions. The only question you have to answer is your name. You do not have to answer questions about your citizenship status, where you’re going, or where you live. If a police officer asks you to step out of the vehicle, comply, but remember that you do not have to consent to a breathalyzer test (though this will result in your license being suspended).
In terms of searching your vehicle, without a warrant, probable cause (like blood on your seats or a suspicious baggie), or illegal objects in plain sight, a police officer does not have the right to search your vehicle. If they ask to search your vehicle, simply say no.
2. On the Streets
Similarly to being stopped in a vehicle, if a police officer stops you in public, you have certain rights. You should identify yourself when asked, but you do not have to answer questions about your address, citizenship status, or where you’re heading. Without a warrant or suspicion of a weapon, police do not have the right to search your body or clothing.
If you are arrested, ask to speak with a lawyer (you can get a government-appointed lawyer if you currently cannot afford legal advice), and if they ask any questions while you’re detained, simply say that you wish to remain silent. If you are arrested, do not do anything without speaking to a legal expert first.
3. In Your Home
Finally, you have a variety of rights when your address is approached by a police officer. If a police officer knocks on your door, open it slightly and ask for their identification. If they ask to come inside, you can politely refuse until they offer a warrant. If they do have a warrant, you can ask them to slip it under the door.
Once you have verified the warrant (with your name on it), let the police officer in, but remember that you still have the right to remain silent. Even if they ask questions, you can simply remind them that you wish to stay quiet. Take note of where they go and what they take for future legal action.
You have rights when dealing with the police, and knowing what they can and cannot do is vital in keeping you safe. If you ever think you’re witnessing or experiencing police brutality, you have the right to record the event and report it to the civilian complaint board or to the local police department.