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February 13, 2003

Know Your Rights When Stopped By The Police

A campaign supporter suggested that I offer up info for people on their legal rights when dealing with law enforcement. Great idea!

I'm going to put out a disclaimer before we get to the nitty gritty. Here it is:

While there are certain rights, procedures, and protocols you can invoke if confronted by the police, keep two things in mind:

1. It will piss them off if you assert your rights. Now, you may not care about their feelings and emotions, but take a guess who a pissed-off cop is likely to take his or her anger out on. Some police officers may be all polite and accomodating if you assert your rights in a way that complicates their task, but many will deem you uncooperative, suspicious, and/or outright criminal. And asserting your rights does not mean the police will comply with your assertion. Sometimes it can have just the opposite result. I learned that the hard way, and bought myself a few hours in jail, a bunch of lawyer's bills, and a lot of cynicism. Terrence Bressi learned it the hard way too.

2. There are plenty of cops who will just violate your rights with impunity, especially if they feel certain they will find something. Once they find something, and you officially become a "perp", they know they will be able to whitewash the details in their report, and it's your word against theirs, you perp you. I learned that the hard way the same time I learned number one, when a state trooper went to great lengths to search me and my jacket, under no pretense whatsoever, until he at last discovered a burned out corncob pipe bowl that smelled like weed. At which point he exclaimed "Aha! Now that's probable cause!" and preceded to search my car and all my friends, resulting in the arrest of three of us. At one point, having grown frustrated with my frequent appeals to my "rights", he turned to me and said "Don't you get it? None of that matters. You're done." Or something to that effect. I won't even get into what a bogus joke the arrest report was.

Now, this disclaimer is not intended to dissuade you from asserting your rights in such situations, or to say it never works like it should. You should assert your rights as firmly as you feel you need to, and oftentimes it does work like it should. At the very least, most police who are aware that you are serious and informed about your rights are more likely to exercise caution in that respect. Just don't go into it all pie-eyed and naive, and maybe try to be diplomatic and calm rather than aggressive or confrontational, if possible. And be aware it could backfire. It's sad but utterly true.

Now that my Negative Nelly bit is out of the way, let's get to those rights of yours. I got lots of rights for you -- all free.

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From the National Lawyers Guild:

Know Your Rights!

What rights do I have?

The Right to Advocate for Change.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects the rights of groups and individuals who advocate changes in laws, government practices, and even the form of government.

The Right to Remain Silent.

The Fifth Amendment of the Constitution provides that every person has the right to remain silent in the face of questions posed by any police officer or government agent.

The Right to be Free from "Unreasonable Searches and Seizures."

The Fourth Amendment is supposed to protect your privacy. Without a warrant, no government agent is allowed to search your home or office and you can refuse to let them in. Know, however, that it is easy for the government to monitor your telephone calls, conversations in your office, home, car, or meeting place, as well as mail. E-mail is particularly insecure. The government has already begun stepping up its monitoring of e-mails.


What should I do if agents come to question me?

  1. YOU DO NOT HAVE TO TALK TO THE POLICE, FBI, INS, OR ANY OTHER LAW ENFORCEMENT AGENT OR INVESTIGATOR. Other than providing your name and address to a police officer who is investigating a crime, you are not legally obligated to talk to anyone: on the street, at your home or office, if you've been arrested, or even if you're in jail. Only a judge has the legal authority to order you to answer questions.

  2. YOU DO NOT HAVE TO LET POLICE OR OTHER LAW ENFORCEMENT AGENTS INTO YOUR HOME OR OFFICE UNLESS THEY HAVE A SEARCH WARRANT OR ARREST WARRANT. Demand to see the warrant. The warrant must specifically describe the place to be searched and the things to be seized. If they have a warrant, you cannot stop them from entering and searching, but you should still tell them that you do not consent to a search.
    This will limit them to the scope of the search authorized by the warrant.

  3. IF THEY DO PRESENT A WARRANT, YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO MONITOR THEIR SEARCH AND ACTIVITIES. You have the right to observe what they do. You have the right to ask them for their names and titles. Take written notes including their names, badge numbers, and what agency they are from. Have your friends who are present act as witnesses. Give this information to your lawyer. A warrant does not give the government the right to question, nor does it obligate you to answer questions.

    Police and other law enforcement agents are very skilled at getting information from people. Many people are afraid that if they refuse to cooperate, it will appear as if they have something to hide. Don't be fooled. The police are allowed to (and do) lie to you. Although agents may seem nice and pretend to be on your side, they are likely to be intent on learning about the habits, opinions, and affiliations of people not suspected of wrongdoing, with the end goal of stopping political activity with which the government disagrees. Trying to answer agents' questions, or trying to "educate them" about your cause can be very dangerous. You can never tell how a seemingly harmless bit of information that you give them might be used and misconstrued to hurt you or someone else. And keep in mind that lying to a federal agent is a crime.

    If you are stopped by the police, ask them why. If they do not have a good reason for stopping you, or if you find yourself chatting for more than about a minute, ask "Am I under arrest, or am I free to go." If they do not state that you are under arrest, tell them that you do not wish to continue speaking with them and that you are going to go about your business. Then do so.

  6. ANYTHING YOU SAY TO THE POLICE, FBI, INS, ETC. WILL BE USED AGAINST YOU AND OTHERS. Once you've been arrested, you cannot talk your way out of it! Don't try to engage the cops in dialogue or respond to their accusations.

  7. THE FBI MAY THREATEN YOU WITH A GRAND JURY SUBPOENA IF YOU DON'T TALK TO THEM. They may give you a subpoena anyway, so anything you tell them may permit them to ask you more detailed questions later. You may also have legal grounds to refuse to answer questions before a grand jury. If you are given a grand jury subpoena, you should call a lawyer immediately (see contact information at the end). Tell your friends and movement groups about the subpoena and discuss how to respond. Do not try to deal with this alone.

  8. IF YOU ARE NERVOUS ABOUT SIMPLY REFUSING TO TALK, TELL THEM TO CONTACT YOUR LAWYER. They should stop trying to question you once you announce your desire to consult a lawyer. You do not have to already have one. Remember to get the name, agency, and telephone number of any investigator who visits you, and contact the National Lawyers Guild for help getting a lawyer.

How should I respond to threatening letters or calls?

If your home or office is broken into, or threats have been made against you, your organization, or someone you work with, share this information with everyone affected. Take immediate steps to increase personal and office security. You should discuss with your organization and with a lawyer whether and how to report such incidents to the police and the advisability of taking other legal action. If you decide to make a report, do not do so without a lawyer present.

What if I suspect surveillance?

Prudence is the best course, no matter who you suspect, or what the basis of your suspicion. Do not hesitate to confront suspected agents politely, in public, with at least one other person present, and inquire about their business. If the suspect declines to answer, he or she at least now knows that you are aware of the surveillance.
If you suspect government agents are monitoring you, or are harassing you, report this to the National Lawyers Guild.

What if I am not a citizen?

    We cannot count on the police to honor local sanctuary ordinances, and the fact that the INS obtained your name in violation of a sanctuary ordinance will NOT prevent you from being deported.

  2. FOREIGN NATIONALS WHO ARE ARRESTED IN THE U.S. HAVE THE RIGHT TO CALL YOUR CONSULATE or to have the police inform your consulate of your arrest. The police must allow your consul to visit or speak with you. Your consul might assist you in finding a lawyer or offer other help, such as contacting your family. You also have the right to refuse help from your consulate.

  3. DO NOT TALK TO THE INS, EVEN ON THE PHONE, before talking to an immigration lawyer. Many INS officers view ;enforcement,"" meaning deporting people, as their primary job. They do not believe that explaining immigration options is part of their job, and most will readily admit this. (Noncitizens who are victims of domestic abuse should speak with an expert in both immigration law and domestic violence.) A noncitizen should always speak with an immigration law expert before speaking to the INS either in person or by telephone.


    All noncitizens have the following rights, regardless of your immigration status:

    1. The right to speak to an attorney before answering any questions or signing any documents;

    2. The right to a hearing with an Immigration Judge;

    3. The right to have an attorney at that hearing and in any interview with INS (however you do not have the right to a free, government-paid lawyer); and

    4. The right to request release from detention, by paying a bond if necessary.

    Noncitizens must assert these rights. If you do not demand these rights, you can be deported without seeing either an attorney or a judge. Leaving the U.S. in this way may have serious consequences for your ability to later enter or to gain legal immigration status in the U.S.


    Anyone not a U.S. citizen may be barred from coming back to the U.S. if they fall into certain categories of people barred from entering. This includes some lawful permanent residents and applicants for green cards. Some noncitizens that have been in the U.S. without INS permission may be permanently barred from re-entering. In addition, some noncitizens that leave the US and return with INS permission may be swiftly removed from the U.S. if they end up in immigration proceedings.

(Many foreign-language versions and PDF posters of this info are available at the NLG website.)

From the ACLU: The "Know Your Rights" flyer in PDF -- download or view in your browser.

From's Racial Profiling page:

What can you do if you are stopped? Civil rights attorneys advise the following:

1. Know your rights: you are not required to give permission to police officer to search your car. You can deny the request - but do so politely.

2. Don't argue: the police may try to intimidate you. Do not be confrontational and provoke an argument.

3. Get the names of the officers: be sure to get their badge numbers, squad car number, license plate number, and make a note of the location and time of day.

4. File a complaint if you feel you have been mis-treated: contact the ACLU or other civil rights organizations for legal advice.

Illionois Attorney Warren Breslin has a whole bunch of advice on his web site about your rights, including specific advice about interrogations, DUI situations and search and seizure, as well as this statement which he recommends carrying around with you to use when push comes to shove:


My lawyer has told me not to talk to anyone about what may be a case against me, not to answer questions and not to reply to accusations. I do not agree to perform any tests of any kind and do not give my consent for you to search me, my car, my house or any of my property. It is not that I am guilty or intend to obstruct a police investigation; I simply will not waive any of my constitutional rights without my lawyer present. Call him. has a Know Your Rights if You are Stopped for Immigration Questioning page from the National Lawyers Guild.

And here's another take on "Know Your Rights" from the ACLU of the Ozarks:

When you are stopped by the police or arrested, you have certain rights under the law. These rights are the same whether or not you have done anything wrong. Know these rights and use them during your encounter with the police.

Above all, do not do or say anything that would make your situation worse. What you say to the police is always important. What you say can be used against you, and it can give the police a chance to arrest you, especially if you bad-mouth a police officer.

Remember that you have the right to remain silent. Use that right!

Do not resist or try to run away. Keep your hands where the police can see them. Never touch a police officer. Stay calm and speak politely.

Insist on knowing why you have been stopped. Ask, "Officer, why did you stop me?" (Note: Your race, ethnic background, gender, sexual orientation, disability, age or appearance alone are not valid reasons for the officer to stop you).

If you are stopped while you are driving, give the officer your driver's license, registration and proof of insurance if he or she asks for them. If you're given a ticket, you should sign it; otherwise you can be arrested. You can always fight the case later in court. If you're suspected of drunk driving (DWI) and refuse to take a blood, urine or breath test, your driver's license may be suspended.

If you are not driving (for example, if you are walking), you are not required to carry any type of identification. If you are asked for identification, you may give it to the officer if you want to, but you do not have to do this. You can't be arrested merely for refusing to identify yourself on the street.

Never give false information to a police officer.

Police may "pat down" your clothing if they suspect a concealed weapon. Don't physically resist, but make it clear that you don't consent to any further search.

Ask the officer, "Am I free to leave?" If the officer says "No," assume that you are under arrest. If the officer says "Yes," you can leave.

Remember that you have the right to remain silent. In most situations, do not say anything except to identify yourself or ask the officer why you have been stopped. Don't bad-mouth a police officer, even if you believe that what is happening is unreasonable. That could lead to your arrest.

Police may ask to search you, your car, or your home. Do not agree to such a search. Be polite, but make it clear that you are not consenting to a search. IMPORTANT: The police may have a right to search you anyhow, and they can do it without your consent. BUT if you give them consent, you may not be able to challenge an illegal search later in court.

It is not lawful for police to arrest you simply for refusing to consent to a search. If the police say they have a search warrant, ask it see it.

If You Are Arrested

Do not resist arrest or try to run away. Keep your hands where the police can see them. Never touch a police officer. Stay calm and speak politely.

Ask for a lawyer immediately. Do not talk to the police without your lawyer.

Never lie to the police. Exercise your right to remain silent. Do not make any statements or answer any questions except to give your name and address and to ask why you have been arrested. Also, do not sign anything and do not agree to talk to the police.

You have the right to contact a lawyer, or to contact someone in your family who can ask for a lawyer for you.Tell the police that you do not wish to speak to anyone until you have a lawyer.

In Missouri, the police cannot hold a person for more than 20 hours without a judge setting bail. A judge will set bail at your first court appearance. The judge will also appoint an attorney to represent you if you cannot afford to hire an attorney.

The police may keep you in a jail cell. Do not talk with anyone about your case. This includes people who are in the cell with you. Talk about your case only with your lawyer.

In Your Home

If the police knock and ask to enter your home, you don't have to admit them unless they have a warrant signed by a judge.

However, in some emergency situations (like when a person is screaming for help inside, or when the police are chasing someone) officers are allowed to enter and search your home without a warrant.

If you are arrested, the police can search you and the area close by. If you are in a building, "close by" usually means just the room you are in.

This here appears to be the ACLU flyer from above, but in web page form. Lots of good stuff there.

And if you're still hungry for more, dig into Google's search results for ' "know your rights" when stopped by the police '.

And remember who pulled all this stuff together for you -- Lance Brown, Candidate for President in 2008. Spread the word!

Posted by Lance Brown at February 13, 2003 04:10 AM | TrackBack
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