Experts is a series within this project that explores specific themes that emerge from personal stories.
This article covers some basic rights people in the U.S. have when interacting with law enforcement. Part two gives some tips to protesters and video recorders.
Candace McKinley is the Executive Director of Roots of Justice, an organization that trains individuals and groups to address and eradicate institutional racism within their communities. She is also a member of Up Against the Law Legal Collective, a group of activists, many of whom are legal workers and lawyers, that train people in their rights as private citizens and protesters, when interacting with law enforcement. She is an activist working with Black Lives Matter Philly and Decarcerate PA.
This article was written based on information McKinley gave in a recent interview.
The rights you have under the law vary, depending on where you are, and what you are doing. Below is a list of common areas where you may be stopped by law enforcement, and some basic information you should know.
Note: this is article is not exhaustive. It certainly does not replace legal advice. To learn more, contact Up Against the Law and sign up for one of their training sessions.
If you’re stopped on the street:
All you have to tell an officer is your legal name. You do not have to show them photo identification.
In their training sessions, Up Against the Law teaches what McKinley calls, “Magic Words.” these words help guide the interaction between you and the police, and indicate that you know your rights. Here are some examples, and when to use them:
- “Am I being detained?” If police stop you on the street to question you, you don’t have to answer their questions. If you’re being detained, it’s likely that you are going to be arrested. You may also be detained while police get a search warrant, which requires a judge’s signature.
- “I’m exercising my right to stay silent.” If you are detained and/or under arrest, you have the right not to say anything more to law enforcement officers, until you have a lawyer present.
- “I don’t consent to your search.” Officers have the right to pat you down above your clothes, to check you for weapons and other paraphernalia. Unless officers have a search warrant, you do not have to consent to a search of your bags or pockets.
- “Am I free to go?” If you are not being detained, then ask if you are free to leave.
If you are pulled over in your vehicle:
As the driver, you must have a drivers license. Your passengers do not need to have photo identification.
Be prepared before the officer is outside your window. Have your drivers license, car registration, car insurance out on the dashboard in plain sight. Have your window rolled down slightly so you and the officer can hear one another. To make sure your hands are where the officer can see them, keep them on top of your steering wheel.
If you need to reach into your glove compartment or bag for identification or paperwork, announce your actions clearly, or ask the officer before making any movements that could be perceived as threatening.
Officers may tell you to get out of the car, or tell you they’re going to search your belongings. To protect yourself in court, clearly say “I do not consent to this search,” especially if someone is recording your interaction.
In Pennsylvania, the police can look in your car and search anything they can reach at arm’s length. Recent cases say that they can reach into your glove compartment and search your vehicle. The only thing they still need a search warrant for is your trunk.
If you are asked to step out, take your personal items with you. That’s an extra layer of consent they’ll need to get in order to legally search your bags.
If police come to your home to do a search:
Don’t open your door all the way. If you have to, open it and step outside to talk to police. Close the door behind you or talk to them through the door. Don’t just consent to the search.
Ask to see their search warrant, or, if you stay inside, have them pass it under the door. The search warrant needs to have a judge’s signature, the correct address of the home they wish to search, the correct date, and the correct name of the person the police are searching for
Police do not necessarily need a search warrant. If they are chasing someone and that person enters a home, they may enter to apprehend them. They may also enter with probable cause (for instance, seeing drugs through an open window).
Recently, the Supreme Court ruled that anyone in your house can give consent to the police to search the house, even if the owner has said “No.”
If you are in police custody:
Do not say anything, and do not sign anything until your lawyer is present.
While knowing your rights and asserting them might encourage an officer to behave more professionally, McKinley also said people should not physically impede that officer.
“Our advice is what will help you down the line,” says McKinley. “We say, you might not be able to beat the ride, but you’ll be able to beat the rap. If a cop wants to search you, they’re going to do it. They’ll do what they want to do, even if they know it’s illegal.”
Contacting Up Against the Law: