Law Enforcement Encounters

When dealing with law enforcement officers, keep your hands in view and don't make sudden movements. Avoid passing behind them. Nervous officers are dangerous officers. Also, never touch law enforcement officers or their equipment—you can get hurt, charged with assault, or both.

Law enforcement officers do not decide your charges; they can only make recommendations. The prosecutor is the only person who can actually charge you. Remember that officers have no power to negotiate or charge; promises of leniency or threats of harsher penalties are all lies and are designed to get you to start talking. 

1. Conversation

When the law enforcement officers are trying to get information, but don't have enough evidence to detain or arrest you, they'll try to coerce information from you. They may call this a "casual encounter" or a "friendly conversation." If you talk to them, you may give them the information they need to arrest you or your friends. In most situations, it is not advisable to volunteer information to law enforcement officers.  Ask if you are free to leave, and if you are, walk away.  If you are being detained or arrested, let the officer know that you do not consent to a search and that you wish to remain silent and want a lawyer.

2. Detention

Police can detain you only if they have reasonable suspicion (see below) that you are involved in a crime. Detention means that, though you aren't arrested, you can't leave. Detention is supposed to last a short time and they are not supposed to move you. During detention, law enforcement officers can pat you down and go into your bag to make sure you don't have any weapons. They aren't supposed to go into your pockets unless they feel a weapon.

If law enforcement officers are asking you questions, ask if you are being detained. If not, leave and say nothing else to them. If you are being detained, you should ask why, and remember their answer. Then you should say the Magic Words: "I am going to remain silent. I want a lawyer" and nothing else.  Remain silent.  Anything you say to law enforcement may be used against you, and sometimes it's hard to recognize that the information you are volunteering might harm you.  It is always better to say nothing at all. 

If they ask to search your person or belongings, say, "I do not consent to a search."  They may say, "Empty your pockets."  You are within your rights to refuse.  If you do empty your pockets, it is considered consent and anything they find in your pockets may be used against you.

A detention can easily turn into arrest. If law enforcement officers are detaining you and they get information that you are involved in a crime, they will arrest you, even if it has nothing to do with why they stopped you.

For example, if someone is pulled over for speeding (detained) and the officer sees drugs in the car, the officer may arrest her for possession of the drugs, even though it has nothing to do with her being pulled over. Law enforcement officers have two reasons to detain you: 1) they are writing you a citation (a traffic ticket, for example), or 2) they want to arrest you but they don't yet have enough information to do so.

3. Arrest

Police can arrest you only if they have probable cause (see below) that you are involved in a crime. When you are arrested, the officers can search you to the skin and go through your car and any belongings.  If arrested, you should still say, "I do not consent to a search" to preserve your rights.  After that, say, "I choose to remain silent and I want a lawyer."  After that, remain silent.  Law enforcement will try to get you to give them information about the crime(s) they are holding you for.  Keep in mind that denying things that they say is NOT remaining silent.