When you’re involved in a traffic stop, what you say and do can often have a big impact on the situation. Consenting to a search of your car, for example, eliminates the police officer’s need to formulate sufficient legal reasons for the search. That could come back to haunt you if the situation leads to criminal charges.
How do you protect your rights when the police pull you over? It takes a little bit of knowledge and a willingness to stand up for yourself. Here are four key phrases to remember:
Am I free to go?
Sometimes, it’s not clear whether you are under arrest. Police officers may allow you to think you are under arrest when they are actually still investigating. You can find out whether you are being arrested, however, by asking if you are free to go or if you’re being detained.
Keep in mind that, once there is cause for suspicion, the officer’s job is to investigate that suspicion and, if possible, get you to incriminate yourself. However, you have the right to leave after the police have spent a reasonable amount of time checking your license, performing a warrant search, and talking to you.
If you are under arrest, the officer should read you your Miranda rights.
I want to remain silent.
Again, remember that the officer is hoping to get you to make a damaging admission. A confession makes their job much easier. You have the right to remain silent, and you should exercise that right. How you exercise it is by saying you wish to remain silent and then actually remaining silent, except as far as necessary for basic communication.
Do not try to give helpful information. Your job is to protect your rights, not help the officers with their inquiry. Yet, it is very tempting to “clear up the confusion” or cooperate in an effort to clear your name. And, people blurt out compromising information all the time.
Furthermore, officers routinely ask questions after you have said you will remain silent. If you answer those questions (other than to give the officer your name and driver’s license), you could waive your right to silence and what you say can be used against you in court.
I do not consent to any searches.
One of the easiest ways to get arrested is to consent to having a police officer search your car. There is enormous social pressure to allow the search when an officer implies that you’ll allow it if you have nothing to hide. The problem is, once you consent to a search, there is little question that any evidence the officer finds will be admissible in court.
Your rights don’t depend on whether you have something to hide. You have the right to refuse a consent search. Protect your rights by making the officers justify their search.
They may end up searching your car even after you have refused your consent. You should not attempt to argue or stop the search. Instead, tell your defense attorney exactly what happened.
I want a lawyer.
Even if you remain silent, refuse to consent to searches, and leave as soon as you are free to go, you may still need an attorney. At each step, the police will imply that you are in the wrong not to cooperate fully. You are not.
If the officer continues to question you after you have said you wish to remain silent, for example, you may need to ask for a lawyer. Once you have, the officer should stop questioning you. Continue to remain silent or say, “I’ll answer questions once I’ve spoken to my attorney.”
Make no mistake. If you are arrested, you do need a lawyer. The police are not just trying to clear things up. They are investigating you with the purpose of filing criminal charges.
Stay silent. Ask for a lawyer. Do not consent to searches. Leave if you’re not under arrest. These steps are how you protect your rights.