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Know Your Rights when Dealing with Police


When dealing with police officers, many people are eager to cooperate to the fullest possible extent. Speaking with an officer is sometimes the right choice to make, but in many cases, it is far more prudent to instead maintain your silence. If you understand your rights when dealing with the police, you’ll be able to protect yourself from unnecessary legal trouble.

The importance of consent

Under normal circumstances, you are not required to speak with police officers or allow them to conduct searches of your home unless they have a search warrant. Once you agree to an interview or a search, you’ve essentially given the police a blank check. If the police have obtained your consent, they can legally use anything you say or anything they find while conducting a search against you or others in court.

Consent can be withdrawn, however. If you initially decide to speak with the police but you find their line of questioning unreasonable or uncomfortable, you have the legal right to withdraw your cooperation in the middle of the interview. Also keep in mind that, when dealing with the police, there is no such thing as speaking “off the record.” Anything you say to a police officer can be used in court.

Exercising your right to remain silent

When should you cooperate with the police, and when should you refuse to speak with them? In many states, residents are required to show their identification when asked by police. However, the legal requirement of cooperation doesn’t extend far beyond furnishing an ID. If approached by a police officer, you may choose not to speak with him if you feel that, by answering his questions, you or someone else might be implicated in a crime. You can also refuse a warrantless search for the same reason. The Fourth and Fifth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution clearly define these rights. Remember that your silence cannot be used against you in court.

Exceptions to these rules

Under certain circumstances, the police have the right to conduct a search without a warrant or to seize or use evidence without your consent.

Traffic Stops and Checkpoints

If your car has been pulled over, the patrolling officer present does not have the right to conduct a warrantless search unless he has probable cause to do so. If the officer has good reason to suspect the presence of contraband in a car, he has the right to open and search the car without the driver’s consent. Police officers also have the right to freely search cars that become involved in emergency situations such as serious accidents.

The “Plain View” Exception

If approached by police officers while at home, you have the right to refuse them entry unless they have a warrant. However, if an officer sees something in your home while standing at the entryway that he believes may be contraband or evidence of a crime, he has the right to seize and use that evidence without your consent. This right also extends to your curbside trash can, which is not legally considered a part of the home and can be freely searched without a warrant.

U.S. residents, both alien and non-alien, have several constitutionally-defined rights that they should fully understand when dealing with police officers. If you’ve been approached by the police, don’t hesitate to exercise your rights by keeping silent or asking them to return at a later time so that, if necessary, you can consult with an attorney.

February 15, 2013 |

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