In light of recent events, I decided it was time for this Weak Parent to refresh his memory on our rights when dealing with law enforcement.

A quick google of “know your rights” brought me to an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) booklet that “addresses what rights you have when you are stopped, questioned, arrested, or searched by law enforcement officers.”

Not all law enforcement officers (or anyone in power) are bad, nor are all good.  So, be sure to train your kids on how to act with the police before it is too late.  Here are some takeaways from the ACLU booklet that were most important to me…

Do I have to answer questions asked by law enforcement officers?

No. You have the constitutional right to remain silent. In general, you do not have to talk to law enforcement officers (or anyone else), even if you do not feel free to walk away from the officer, you are arrested, or you are in jail. You cannot be punished for refusing to answer a question. It is a good idea to talk to a lawyer before agreeing to answer questions. In general, only a judge can order you to answer questions.

Are there any exceptions to the general rule that I do not have to answer questions?

Yes, there are two limited exceptions. First, in some states, you must provide your name to law enforcement officers if you are stopped and told to identify yourself [in my state, I do not have to]. But even if you give your name, you are not required to answer other questions. Second, if you are driving and you are pulled over for a traffic violation, the officer can require you to show your license, vehicle registration and proof of insurance (but you do not have to answer questions).

What if law enforcement officers stop me on the street?

You do not have to answer any questions. You can say, “I do not want to talk to you” and walk away calmly. Or, if you do not feel comfortable doing that, you can ask if you are free to go. If the answer is yes, you can consider just walking away. Do not run from the officer. If the officer says you are not under arrest, but you are not free to go, then you are being detained. Being detained is not the same as being arrested, though an arrest could follow. The police can pat down the outside of your clothing only if they have “reasonable suspicion” (i.e., an objective reason to suspect) that you might be armed and dangerous. If they search any more than this, say clearly, “I do not consent to a search.” If they keep searching anyway, do not physically resist them. You do not need to answer any questions if you are detained or arrested, except that the police may ask for your name once you have been detained, and you can be arrested in some states for refusing to provide it.

What if law enforcement officers stop me in my car?

Keep your hands where the police can see them. You must show your drivers license, registration and proof of insurance if you are asked for these documents. Officers can also ask you to step outside of the car, and they may separate passengers and drivers from each other to question them and compare their answers, but no one has to answer any questions. The police cannot search your car unless you give them your consent, which you do not have to give, or unless they have “probable cause” to believe (i.e., knowledge of facts sufficient to support a reasonable belief) that criminal activity is likely taking place, that you have been involved in a crime, or that you have evidence of a crime in your car. If you do not want your car searched, clearly state that you do not consent. The officer cannot use your refusal to give consent as a basis for doing a search.

Can law enforcement officers search my home or office?

Law enforcement officers can search your home only if they have a warrant or your consent. In your absence, the police can search your home based on the consent of your roommate or a guest if the police reasonably believe that person has the authority to consent. Law enforcement officers can search your office only if they have a warrant or the consent of the employer. If your employer consents to a search of your office, law enforcement officers can search your workspace whether you consent or not.

What are warrants and what should I make sure they say?

A warrant is a piece of paper signed by a judge giving law enforcement officers permission to enter a home or other building to do a search or make an arrest. A search warrant allows law enforcement officers to enter the place described in the warrant to look for and take items identified in the warrant. An arrest warrant allows law enforcement officers to take you into custody. An arrest warrant alone does not give law enforcement officers the right to search your home (but they can look in places where you might be hiding and they can take evidence that is in plain sight), and a search warrant alone does not give them the right to arrest you (but they can arrest you if they find enough evidence to justify an arrest). A warrant must contain the judge’s name, your name and address, the date, place to be searched, a description of any items being searched for, and the name of the agency that is conducting the search or arrest. An arrest warrant that does not have your name on it may still be validly used for your arrest if it describes you with enough detail to identify you, and a search warrant that does not have your name on it may still be valid if it gives the correct address and description of the place the officers will be searching. However, the fact that a piece of paper says “warrant” on it does not always mean that it is an arrest or search warrant. A warrant of deportation/removal, for example, is a kind of administrative warrant and does not grant the same authority to enter a home or other building to do a search or make an arrest.

What should I do if officers come to my house?

If law enforcement officers knock on your door, instead of opening the door, ask through the door if they have a warrant. If the answer is no, do not let them into your home and do not answer any questions or say anything other than “I do not want to talk to you.” If the officers say that they do have a warrant, ask the officers to slip it under the door (or show it to you through a peephole, a window in your door, or a door that is open only enough to see the warrant). If you feel you must open the door, then step outside, close the door behind you and ask to see the warrant. Make sure the search warrant contains everything noted above, and tell the officers if they are at the wrong address or if you see some other mistake in the warrant. (And remember that an immigration “warrant of removal/deportation” does not give the officer the authority to enter your home.) If you tell the officers that the warrant is not complete or not accurate, you should say you do not consent to the search, but you should not interfere if the officers decide to do the search even after you have told them they are mistaken. Call your lawyer as soon as possible. Ask if you are allowed to watch the search; if you are allowed to, you should. Take notes, including names, badge numbers, which agency each officer is from, where they searched and what they took. If others are present, have them act as witnesses to watch carefully what is happening.

What if law enforcement officers do not have a search warrant?

You do not have to let law enforcement officers search your home, and you do not have to answer their questions. Law enforcement officers cannot get a warrant based on your refusal, nor can they punish you for refusing to give consent.

Download this booklet from the ACLU website for more information.

This booklet, as well as this post, informs you of your basic rights, and is not a substitute for legal advice.

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”  — Lord Acton (1887)

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