If stopped or confronted by the police, you are at a considerable disadvantage. First, you are facing a law enforcement professional who probably knows the laws far better than you do. They are professionally trained to use the law to their advantage and to your disadvantage in every way. Second, they have all the power – and you both know it. They will use that power to manipulate you and intimidate you into cooperating (even when you don’t have to), and you will gladly do so in the often illusory hope that you won’t get a ticket or get arrested. Third, they are empowered by the law to lie and trick you. Yep, it is true. They are allowed to make fake promises that they don’t have to keep to get information out of you. In short, they are professionals doing a job (and their job is to charge you with and incriminate you for as many law violations as possible) – and you should never forget that.
Other than keeping the information above in mind, here are some specific things you should know when confronted by the police:
1. The police are not just making polite conversation with you. Everything they ask is designed to investigate and incriminate you. For example, even for a simple speeding stop, an officer may ask, “do you know why I stopped you?”, or “do you know how fast you were going?” These questions are designed to put you in a “no-win” situation and manipulate you into incriminating yourself. They are “no-win” because the officer is playing on your perceptions that on the one hand if you refuse to answer, or if you are dishonest, then you will be punished with a ticket. On the other hand, if you tell the officer you were speeding (on the hope that the officer will appreciate your apparent honesty and cooperation), but you still get the ticket, then you have just incriminated yourself and wiped out any chance of combating the ticket later. Likewise, a police officer will ask questions like: “do you still live at the address listed on your DL or registration?” (this question is designed to determine whether you have violated Florida law by failing to update your address); “do you have any unpaid tickets?” or “do you know your license is suspended?” If the police determine that your license may be suspended, they will ask a question such as one of these to try to get you to admit that you knew about the suspension – which makes it a crime for which you may be arrested! The best policy is NOT TO LIE! People always get themselves into the MOST trouble when they try to talk their way out of trouble with a bad story. Just politely decline to answer. “I’d prefer not to assume anything about why you stopped me,” “I’d prefer not to say anything,” are examples of appropriate replies. Silence is always golden in a pinch.
2. Know your rights! When the police confront you, you have rights that protect you.
a. Determine the status of your freedom (leave, if permitted). The first thing you need to know is whether you are free to leave. Unless the police have a warrant, they must have a legal basis for interfering with your life. The police have just as much right to walk up to you (or to knock on your door) and ask you what you are up to as anyone else. It is called a “consensual encounter.” In fact, police will sometimes even knock on a private residence door to do what is called a “knock and talk” with the resident. If you allow for it – it is legal. Because it is the police, usually people feel intimidated and think they have to allow for it. You don’t have to allow for it. You can close the door or say, “I don’t want to talk to you. Am I free to leave?” If the police do not have legal grounds to interfere with your life, they must let you walk away – because they also have no MORE right to step up and talk to you than anyone else (absent a warrant or other legal grounds). If stopped while driving a motor vehicle, it is usually based upon the law enforcement officer either having observed a law violation or having an articulable, reasonable suspicion of a crime (among other recognized grounds). Most of the time, such a stop will allow the officer to briefly stop you to write a citation or to conduct a brief investigatory stop. Regardless, it is always a good idea to keep in mind that you have the right not to be unlawfully seized by law enforcement. You may ask if you are free to leave, and inform the officer that you do not consent to being detained.
b. You have the right to remain silent (don’t talk). As discussed above, if the police confront you, you do not have to consent to answer any questions. There are limited circumstances when you may be required to give information or answer questions. Under such circumstances, you will want to make sure you make clear that you are not consenting, that you are only willing to explain what is required by law and that you want a lawyer. Otherwise, less is more. Remain silent!
c. You do not have to consent to a search of yourself or your property. Under certain circumstances, the police may be legally allowed to search you or your property without your permission. If so, do not interfere and do not resist. Under such circumstances, you are not consenting; they are just doing what they believe they are authorized by law to do (we can argue about that in court later). Otherwise, if the police don’t have a warrant, or other legal grounds for searching, you do not have to consent to a search.
d. You have the right to a lawyer. Your best catch-all right is to ask for a lawyer unequivocally. Not free to leave? I want a lawyer. Being asked questions? I want a lawyer. May we search your room? I want a lawyer.
3. Don’t be afraid – be smart. I know being confronted by the police, and the prospect of getting arrested, is very scary. The police know this, too. And they use it very much to their advantage. The biggest reason people give up important rights and incriminate themselves is that they act out of fear and intimidation to waive their rights in a hopeful effort to avoid the prospect of arrest. The real scary concern is whether you will get CONVICTED. By being strong and quietly/politely invoking your rights, you may or may not avoid arrest. More importantly, however, you will give yourself the best chance of avoiding a conviction.