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Do you know your rights when interacting with police?

Police interactions can be tense, and some escalate to violence without much warning or provocation. If you get stopped or detained, it is critical to understand your basic rights during the interaction.

You have almost nothing to gain from consenting to a search

If you were pulled over in your vehicle and a police officer suspects you might be in possession of contraband, the officer may ask something like: “mind if I take a look inside your vehicle and trunk?” Most of us would hear this and assume that the officer was stating a command in a polite way – phrased as a question but not actually a choice.

Making this assumption is a mistake. In fact, if a police officer asks for your consent to search the vehicle, it is likely because he doesn’t have a warrant and wouldn’t otherwise have the authority to conduct the search. By saying “yes,” you are allowing yourself to be held accountable for whatever the search might uncover.

Whether it is your vehicle, your home or even your pockets, you don’t have to consent to a search of yourself or your property (although an officer may pat you down if he suspects you are in possession of weapon). By saying no, you are putting the burden of proof on the officer, who either must assert probable cause or first obtain a warrant. He might conduct the search anyway, despite your objection, but by withholding consent, you may be able to challenge the search later in court.

Worried that refusing to allow a search will make you look guilty? Don’t be. Chances are good that the officer already suspects you are guilty, but questions of guilt and innocence are decided later in court. By refusing a search, you are just protecting yourself from exposure to criminal liability.

Do you need to answer questions?

Most of us are trained to answer questions when asked – especially questions posed by authority figures. But when police read you your Miranda rights, they clearly warn that “anything you say can and will be used against you.” Whether you have been arrested or merely stopped by police, you usually don’t need to provide any more information than your name and your license/ID (in certain contexts). For any additional questions, you could say “I’m exercising my right to remain silent. If I am being arrested and interrogated, I am requesting that a criminal defense lawyer be present first.”

Are these extreme measures when interacting with police? They can be. But if you are worried about your rights and your freedom, the best way to protect yourself is to give away no more information or access than absolutely necessary.