Interacting with the police
Whether a routine traffic stop, at a public gathering or even at school, everyone has encounters with the police. The police work the streets and they’re out and about, just like you are. Their job is law enforcement, and sometimes that means they stop passersby, even if there is no suspicion of a crime. Other times, they present themselves as stopping for a friendly chat while gathering information or, in fact, suspecting you.
Know your rights
When talking to the police, the most important things to remember are in the Bill of Rights. The Fourth Amendment means no unreasonable searches and seizures, and the Fifth Amendment guarantees the right to remain silent. These core principles should guide police interaction. Specifically that you don’t have to say anything. If a statement is requested of you, a lawyer can act as an intermediary.
When stopped by an officer
Whether they approach you on a street corner while you’re with friends, bump into you as you walk the dog on your block, or at a traffic stop, police can only ask for very basic information and you have the right not to cooperate (to a point). You should always remain civil and friendly, of course, while confirming your silence.
In Colorado, if an officer asks for a name or identification, you must comply truthfully. Otherwise, respectfully refusing to answer questions is your right as a citizen. While it may feel easier to answer them and move on, the officer can use anything you say against you, whether it is apparent in the tone of the conversation or not. A friendly conversation about the weather or last night’s Nuggets game might include subtle information that you hadn’t meant to share.
If an officer asks to speak with you, ask if you’re free to leave. If yes, then you may move on. Police can ask for identification, as previously mentioned.
If the officer says you cannot leave, then you are being detained. In this case, remember that you don’t have to answer any questions beyond your identity. Refusing to answer may feel rude and tedious, but these are your rights and they protect you from divulging personal information. Requesting a lawyer (or, for minors, a legal guardian) will help in choosing the right words if you choose to make a statement.
Because of the Fourth Amendment, nobody can search your property without a warrant. There are exceptions: if something in a vehicle or home is visible from the outside or, for example, if you’re in a school setting then different rules apply. Along with checking identification, officers are also allowed to pat down a suspect for weapons. Searching bags, cell phones or closed containers requires a warrant under most circumstances.
If you do not wish to be searched, say so calmly and clearly. If the officer persists, make note of the officer’s name, badge number and agency and that you did not consent. An illegal search of your property is not admissible in court.
Fundamental American rights
The Constitution clearly grants individuals the right to personal space and privacy, including harassment and searches by the police. Remember, even when an officer is being friendly, they are on the job and anything you say can have implications and greater impact than it seems on the surface.
Not speaking may feel impolite, and some officers are pushy for information, but you do not have to say anything. If an officer does demand a statement, an attorney can provide that on your behalf. Following and respecting the law is important to our quality of life, and that means making sure your own rights are protected in the process.