What To Do When You Are Stopped by the Police

When you’re stopped by the police, you run the risk of being arrested or hurt, or both. Most officers will not act improperly, but whether they act properly or not you still need to protect your rights and keep yourself safe.

If you’re stopped or arrested, try to avoid conflict to keep the police calm. The following tips may help. They’re combined from several sources (including the ACLU and myself). I’m not a lawyer and I can’t tell you anything beyond what I have listed here. — M. Bluejay, 7-00

What to do when you are stopped

  1. Stay calm and in control of your words, body language, and emotions.
  2. Do not run or walk away. Keep your hands where police can see them — don’t put them in your pockets. (Don’t make the police nervous by wondering if you have a weapon.) Don’t make any sudden movements. Never touch a police officer.
  3. Be polite and respectful.
  4. Give your name and address only if you’re asked to, but remember you don’t need to say anything more. (The caveat is that if the police are annoyed by your refusal to say more, they may take you to the station out of spite.) Remember, anything you say or do can be used against you later.
  5. To search you or your vehicle the police must have a warrant, or have arrested you, or have probable cause that you committed a crime. If the police lack these they may ask you for permission to search. If you GIVE them permission, then you can’t argue later in court that they performed an illegal search.
  6. Try to remember the officers’ physical decriptions. Try to memorize badge numbers, names, license plate numbers, and police car numbers. Once the police stop questioning you, write all this down as soon as you are able.
  7. Ask bystanders to stand at a discreet distance and observe. The police are less likely to do something wrong if there are people watching. People have a right to stand at a reasonable distance and observe as long as they do not interfere. (The police may consider that bystanders repeatedly asking them questions constitutes “interference”.) Get the names and phone numbers of the witnesses afterward in case you need them in the future.
  8. If you are being abused, don’t resist. Once multiple officers start hurting you, you can’t stop them by resisting, and struggling may only encourage them. Think of a cat playing with a mouse — while the mouse is struggling, the cat is excited, but when the mouse stops moving, the cat loses interest. In some cases, the police may continue to abuse you even if you don’t struggle, but since struggling can’t help you, it’s best not to try.
  9. If the police let you go and you are injured, take photographs of the injuries as soon as possible, but make sure you seek medical attention first.
  10. If you feel your rights have been violated, file a written complaint. Keep a copy of the complaint, and make sure a family member or close friend has a copy.

If you’re arrested

1. Do not resist arrest, even if you believe you are innocent. You will be arrested anyway, and then you’ll have the additional charge of Resisting Arrest. Also, the police are more likely to hurt people who resist arrest.
2. If you are told that you are under arrest, give only the name, address, and telephone number of you, your immediate family, and your employer. This information is needed in setting bail.
3. You have a right to remain silent. Say only, “I want to talk to a lawyer.” If the police continue to question you, do not answer. Also, do not speak on a video tape or to a district attorney about anything. Remember, it’s in the police officers’ best interest to get you to incriminate yourself. If you’re arrested with somebody else, don’t talk with them about the incident in the back of the police car even when the police are not in the car; many police cars now secretly make video or audio recordings of such conversations.
4. You have a right to make one phone call to your family, lawyer, or organization (remember the phone you use may be tapped).
5. Do not act defiant or talk about filing complaints. You do not want the police to retaliate against you while you’re in their custody.
6. You will be handcuffed searched, photographed, and finger-printed.
7. Try to get the names and badge numbers of the police who arrested you or deal with you in the police station. (This information is your right.)

If your friend is arrested

1. Write down the officers’ names, badge numbers, and car number. The police do not have to give you their badge numbers unless you’re the one being arrested, though. Be polite and don’t threaten to file a complaint; you don’t want them to arrest you too out of spite. I’ve seen it happen.
2. Write down the time, date, and place of the incident.
3. Get the names and phone numbers of witnesses.
4. If possible, photograph or videotape the incident.
5. Get a name of a relative to contact if the person is arrested.
6. Ask on what charge your friend was arrested and where (s)he is being taken.
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