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4 Rights To Remember When You’re Stopped By Police


In 21 Jump Street, Channing Tatum, playing a young police officer, is berated by his superior after failing to to “Mirandize” a suspect, which resulted in the criminal’s release without charges. When asked to recite the warning, Tatum’s character fails miserably, despite Jonah Hill’s best efforts to help. Though funny within the context of the film, Tatum’s error is a gross violation of basic constitutional rights.

The Miranda warning, better known as Miranda rights, is a warning given by police to criminal suspects in police custody or in a custodial interrogation before they are interrogated, to preserve the admissibility of their statements against them in criminal proceedings. In Miranda v. Arizona, the Supreme Court held that the admission of an elicited incriminating statement by a suspect not informed of these rights violates the Fifth Amendment and the Sixth Amendment right to counsel, through the incorporation of these rights into state law.

Granted, most law-abiding citizens will never be arrested, but they likely will have some sort of police encounter during their lifetimes — whether it’s being pulled over, stopped on the street, or being questioned at their door. Recent events in Ferguson, MO, remind us that it is important to know one’s rights and responsibilities when interacting with a police officer.

Here are four rights to remember the next time you’re stopped by a police officer:

The Right: You have the right to remain silent. If you wish to exercise that right, say so out loud.

The Reason: The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides that no person shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself or herself. At trial, the prosecution can’t call the defendant as a witness, or comment on the defendant’s failure to testify. Whether to testify or not is exclusively the privilege of the defendant. In other words, no police officer can threaten or force you to speak if you do not want to. When interacting with police officers, silence is a virtue as well as a right.

The Right: You have the right to refuse to consent to a search of yourself, your car, or your home.

The Reason: The Fourth Amendment safeguards private citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures. The amendment requires police officers to obtain written permission from a court of law to legally search a person and his or her property and seize evidence while they are investigating possible criminal activity. Evidence obtained through illegal searches is not admissible in a court of law. However, police can legally search without a warrant if probable cause is established or if consent is given by an individual.

The Right: If you are not under arrest, you have the right to calmly leave.

The Reason: If a police officer tells you to stop for no apparent reason, you can ask them if it is an order. If the officer issues specific orders to stop, then you must comply. Police officers also are allowed to perform what is called a Terry Stop, where they detain a subject for a short period based on reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. The name comes from Terry v. Ohio in which the Supreme Court held that police may briefly detain a person whom they reasonably suspect is involved in criminal activity; the Court also held that police may do a limited search of the suspect’s outer garments for weapons if they have a reasonable and articulable suspicion that the person detained may be “armed and dangerous.” When a search for weapons is authorized, the procedure is known as a “stop and frisk.” However, if you are not under arrest, the officer cannot prevent you from leaving peacefully.

The Right: You have the right to a lawyer. If you are arrested, ask for one immediately.

The Reason: The Sixth Amendment states that “in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right . . . to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.” The amendment recognizes that most individuals are not legal experts, which means you have a right to counsel. This ties back to the Fifth Amendment’s protections against self-incrimination.

It also is important to note that the Constitution applies to everyone on U.S. soil, regardless of immigration or citizenship status. That’s right: even if you are an undocumented immigrant, you have certain rights the police must respect.

Now that you know your rights, it’s good to remember you also have certain responsibilities as a private citizen when interacting with police. Some of these include:

  • Staying calm and being polite.
  • Not interfering with or obstructing the police.
  • Not lying or giving false documents.
  • Preparing yourself and your family in case you are arrested.
  • Remembering the details of the encounter.
  • Filing a written complaint or seeking legal counsel if you feel your rights have been violated.

Also, remember that most police officers are good, hardworking members of your community: neither as inept as Channing Tatum nor brutal as those in Ferguson. If you keep the above in mind when encountering the police, you shouldn’t have any problems.

Have you ever had a memorable (good or bad) encounter with a police officer? Let us know in the comments!

One Comment

  1. Charles says:

    Here’s a good experience. I drove through a red light one summer afternoon in Cheektowaga, N.Y. It was one of those situations where it was yellow and I simply pushed it, I was rushing, but no speeding. The light became obviously red by the time I went through it. I looked in rear view mirror and down the hill below me I saw a police car immediately put its light on, and I was sure it was for me. So I pulled right over and waited for him to catch up. He pulled behind me, walked up and asked, “Why’d you pull over?” I said, ‘oh, I knew I’d gone through that light, and I was waiting for you.’ He beamed a big smile of appreciation, nodded his head knowingly and said, ” thanks. You’re all se now, have a nice day.”