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I think that all people should be taught what their rights are before they encounter a police officer; it’s something you should know. And you should not start thinking at the moment when suddenly there’s the police officer, “Oh, I wonder what my rights are?” So it’s just a good thing for everybody to know as part of their basic education.
If you get pulled over by the police and you don’t know why, I think the most important thing that a lot of people don’t know is to be polite on the one hand. But on the other hand, you do have certain rights in that situation. The police are not actually supposed to pull people over for no reason, under the Fourth Amendment, which is our protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. The police do have to have some reason to stop somebody, to interfere with their liberty. So you could ask the officer, “Why am I being pulled over?” if you’re in a car or “Why am I being stopped?” if you’re on the street.
If the officer does have, you know, a probable cause to arrest you or, you know, to give you a ticket or something like that, then, you know, that’s something that presumably will happen. But you do have a right to go about your business if, in fact, the officer does not have a particular reason to stop you, if the officer is just stopping to say, “Hey, how are you doing?” or “What are you doing in this neighborhood?” – you do then have the right to just say, “I’m fine, thank you,” and just walk on. And you also do have the right, if the officer questions you; You have a right to be silent and to not say anything.
So I think a lot of people don’t know if an officer says, “Will you answer the following questions” or, “Do you mind if I search the trunk of your car,” or “What’s in your brief case?” I think most people feel that they have to cooperate and say, “Yes.” But in fact, if the officer is just asking, then you do have the right to say “no.
If the police have probable cause to arrest somebody, that means, they have seen you speeding or they have some other reason to believe you’ve committed a crime. At that point, they do have the right to arrest somebody and to also do what’s called a “search incident to the arrest” of the person and of their vehicle, if they’re driving a vehicle. And at that point, if somebody tries to get away, once they are properly being under arrest, that’s resisting arrest, and that’s a crime.
However, if an officer does not have probable cause to arrest somebody, then you know, that person is going to have a right to walk away because they’re not under arrest. It’s not resisting arrest if an
officer just would like to ask you to consent to a search or something like that and you say, “No, I don’t want to consent.” At that point, you do have the right to walk away. That’s not resisting arrest, that’s not obstruction of justice; it’s just exercising your Constitutional rights.
But there’s a caveat here because the Supreme Court has not been so good, first of all, of the fact that the police should really be explaining to people what our rights are. The other thing that the
Supreme Court says is that if you don’t just walk away, if you run away from the police, that added to very little else might be considered to be suspicious enough to then give the police more ground for
intervention. So I think the important thing for people to remember during any encounter with the police is remain calm, remain respectful, but also assert your rights because you do have those rights. And the mere fact that the police don’t tell you what your rights are doesn’t mean you don’t have them. It just means you have to know on your own what your rights are.
Directed / Produced by
Jonathan Fowler & Elizabeth Rodd