Personal Rights & the State

Disclaimer: Not a lawyer. Not legal advice.
This is for general informational purposes only.

1. How should I treat cops?

You should always, always treat officers of the law with the utmost respect. They put their lives on the line to protect and serve us.
No matter who is right or wrong: never resist arrest or in any way threaten an officer. Let an attorney argue your case later. Also, never engage in small talk with an officer. Because anything you say can be used against you (e.g. a vague comment might be construed as giving permission to search your car). Remember, all of the communication between you and an officer of the law should be equally courteous, simple, and to the point. This is how free societies flourish.

2. Do I have to answer the question “Do you know why I stopped you?”

You never have to answer this question. The Fifth Amendment protects citizens from self-incrimination.

In fact, it is generally better for you to ask the officer why he or she has stopped you. For example, “Hello Officer, why have you stopped me?” If the officer repeats the question, feel free to remain silent or say you don’t know. Until the officer has shown probable cause
(e.g. “You ran a red light”) you do not have to answer his/her questions or hand over your ID.

3. What if I’m just walking around downtown? Do the police have the right to randomly stop me?

The Fourth Amendment protects citizens from unreasonable search and seizure.

• The Supreme Court (see: Terry v. Ohio) defines “seize” as when an officer “restrains [your] freedom to walk away.”
• The Supreme Court (Terry v. Ohio) defines 
“reasonable” as the ability “to point to specific…facts…which warrant the intrusion.” 

So, an officer cannot stop you or search you without a specific reason, and cannot arrest you without probable cause.

4. What is a Terry Stop?

An officer can briefly detain you if he/she has a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, but still doesn’t have enough probable cause to actually arrest you. It’s splitting hairs, I know. But it’s important. For example, let’s say a well-known former thief is walking through a wealthy neighborhood. An officer has the right to briefly stop the former thief, question him, and even pat down his outer garments. This is considered a “reasonable seizure” of the man’s person and property under Terry v. Ohio. But, because the former thief wasn’t actually committing any crimes, he is then free to go.

Most of us have actually been through a Terry stop, because a simple traffic stop is, technically, a Terry stop. For example, if you were going 45 in a 35, and an officer pulled you over, it would be “reasonable” for the officer to briefly detain you (but not arrest you), and write you a speeding ticket.

But note that there’s a fine line between a “Terry stop” and “Unreasonable Search and Seizure.” In the recent Rodriguez v. US case,
the Supreme Court decided that it was unconstitutional for a driver at a traffic stop to have to wait for a drug-sniffing K9 unit to arrive at the scene without probable cause.

5. Can I be detained or arrested for not showing my ID?

The Supreme Court says a person cannot be detained merely because they refuse to identify themselves (Brown v. Texas). In order for you or your property to be seized, you must be suspected of a specific crime. Police can’t just ID random people. Also, understand that if you hand over your ID needlessly, you run the risk of being written up in a police report (regardless of if you are charged).

6. What if the officer doesn’t specifically identify a crime?

The officer may respond with something vague about “suspicious activity,” “public safety," or “complaints” in the area. That’s fine.
But you still have the right to know what crime you are suspected of committing. 
It is illegal for the police to detain an American citizen for no reason. So continue to ask: “Why am I being detained" until the officer has specifically identified why (he/she doesn’t have to charge you, but probable cause must be established in order to detain you for any appreciable length of time). If the officer refuses to identify a crime he/she suspects you of committing, your next question is “Am I free to go?” If neither of these questions are answered, despite multiple requests, ask to speak to the officer’s supervisor. Then ask the supervisor the above 2 questions.

And by all means, get all of this on your smartphone and upload it online! Unlawful search and seizure are also crimes.

7. Does an officer have the right to search me, my secured vehicle, or my secured house?

Unless you have given permission, your stuff cannot be searched without these 2 things: probable cause + a search warrant.
However, a search warrant is not needed if there are what are called exigent circumstances. For example: warrantless searches can occur if an illegal item is in plain sight, if you are fleeing a crime, or if someone is destroying evidence.

If an officer asks for permission to search your vehicle, it is because he or she does not yet have sufficient cause or warrant to do so.
If an officer does not have probable cause, you are welcome to deny access to a search (and you do not have to give a reason why).
In such a situation, you must say clearly “I do not consent to any search or seizure”. Feel free to repeat this if necessary.

If an officer orders you to exit your vehicle, and you don’t lock the door behind you, he or she is allowed to enter your vehicle and search it without your permission. The same goes for your house, cell phone, email, social media accounts, etc. Also note that public school emails are already the property of the state.

Finally, there is the incredibly weird world of “civil forfeiture.” It states that an officer can seize property without charging its owner with a crime if said property is suspected of being involved in criminal activity. The property is then “arrested” by the state until its former owner can legally prove that the property was not used in a crime. For example, in 2008 the Federal courts put a bunch of shark fins on trial in the case of “US v. Approximately 64,695 Pounds of Shark Fins.”

So, yeah. Basically, your stuff can be put on trial (and is guilty until proven innocent).

8. Is it ok to film police officers?

Yes, as long as they can see that you’re recording, it’s in a public place, and you are not interfering with them doing their jobs. If you are asked why you are recording, you can say “I’m exercising my First Amendment right (Freedom of the Press) to document a public activity.” If the police give you a lawful order to stand back, then stand back! Always obey the physical instructions of the police.

9. How should I handle a traffic stop?

- Turn off your engine and place your empty hands on the steering wheel.
- If you have a firearm in the vehicle, calmly describe to the officer where it is in the vehicle (with your hands still on the wheel).
- Obey all of the officer’s orders with courtesy (e.g. get license and registration).
- Your passengers do not have to give their IDs without probable cause.
- You do not have to answer anything that could incriminate you (e.g. “Do you know how fast you were going?”). You can remain silent.
- If ordered to step out of your car, be sure to lock it. An unlocked car could be construed as giving permission to search it.
- As you exit the car, clearly say “I do not consent to any searches.”
- Do not forfeit your keys unless you are arrested, as doing so could be construed as giving permission to search your car.
- If true, inform the officer that he/she is being filmed by your dashcam (they are quite inexpensive now).
- If the officer tries to involve you in idle chatter, politely ask if you are free to go.*
- If it’s just a routine speeding ticket or parking ticket, once you have the ticket in hand you are free to go.*
- *Anything said after the ticket has been given can still be used against you. It is in your best interest to simply leave quietly.

10. Remember these Four

- What crime am I suspected of committing?
- I do not consent to any search or seizure.
- (If not charged) Am I free to go?
- (If charged) I would like to speak to a lawyer.