As a lawyer, one of the most persistently interesting experiences I have is hearing the various tales of the public's interactions with police officers. They vary from stories of horrible police conduct to police officers going above and beyond the call of duty to serve the public, not only by risking their lives, but by just taking the extra step to let the public know the police were public servants and not an invading army. These experiences vary from place to place and from officer to officer. Growing up in central Long Beach, California, the police were one of the last people I would have ever trusted. Conversely, the officers I knew in Massachusetts and in Shasta County became people for whom I have a great deal of admiration and trust. Having been on both sides of interactions with the police, I have a few tips for the best way to handle that moment when the men and women in blue become an unwanted part of your life.
When subject to a traffic stop, remain calm.
It is natural when confronted by authority figures to be somewhat nervous. In fact, the police expect you to be nervous. But, anger and indignation are a quick ticket to this turning into a very bad encounter. The police pulled you over for speeding? Great. Do not admit to speeding at all. Just listen to the officer, cooperate with the officer, take your ticket and leave. Think the officer pulled you over for racial reasons? Great. Call a lawyer AFTER the incident. Do not confront the officer on the scene, because on the scene, the officer is winning that fight. You want to win it on the street, but the officer MUST win it on the street. As far as that cop knows, your anger may escalate into a dangerous confrontation. Go to any police department and see the memorial dedicated to dead officers. Most of them are dead because they let their guard down and someone took advantage of that and killed them. Believe me, every cop learns those stories and if having to choose between running you in to shut you down or getting killed, they will run you in every time. By remaining calm, and avoiding conflict even when you feel you have been wronged, the officer is less likely to see you as a potential threat and a potential criminal.
Do not consent to a search, but do not get stupid.
Every real attorney ( You will learn I am biased in favor of trial lawyers), cop, and judge know this story. The suspect is pulled over by the police. Police mention a traffic violation of some kind, then ask if they can search the suspect's car. The suspect is fully aware that he has drugs/weapons/a body or some other incriminating item hidden in the trunk or elsewhere. The suspect then tells the officer, “Sure you can search.” Lo and behold, the police find the incriminating items and take the suspect into custody. The suspect then tells his attorney that he figured that if he consented to the search that the officer would not search. This makes as much sense as a lady granting permission for a guy to have sex with her on video and then being stunned when he actually does it. So if you do not want your car searched, then do not consent to a search.
Of course, every now and then there will be a police officer who could care less about the consent. This kind of officer will search without asking often believing he has probable cause and often not. Then there are the officers who ask for consent, do not get the consent, but search anyway. In these circumstances, you should state clearly, “Officer, you do not have my consent to search my vehicle. If you elect to ignore my refusal to consent to the search, I will not try to stop you, but I am not consenting to the search.” After that, your next battle comes after any arrest and after you have consulted with legal counsel. Do not get into the subject any further on the scene and do not say something imbecilic to the officer, like, “I'll sue you.” Cops are often threatened with lawsuits. They are often the subject of lawsuits so this will hardly be of new to any officer. Since most payments from police lawsuits do not come out of the officer's pocket but instead from the reserve funds of cities and counties, this does not scare them until its time for a deposition. And even then, though the officer may be uncomfortable in testifying under deposition conditions, knowing it is not his or her money at stake, the officer has less reason to be intimidated than you think.
If the police want to speak with you, shut up.
Let me elaborate on this particular point. Johnny comes home and finds a card belonging to a police officer on his door. Johnny calls the officer and asks why the officer stopped by and left a card. Officer tells Johnny that he wanted to talk to him. Johnny says that he would like to know what this is about and Officer tells him that it might be best if Johnny came into the station to talk to Officer. Ladies and gentlemen, Johnny is most likely a suspect and may soon be arrested. The officer wants to talk to Johnny not to get the truth from Johnny or to get a lie from Johnny. Officer just wants any statement from Johnny, especially if any part of it corroborates any slightly incriminating evidence against Johnny. If Johnny is innocent and proclaims his innocence to the officer, this will have little meaning to the officer if Johnny also makes a statement placing him at or near the scene of the crime. At that point, there is some corroboration and Johnny could be in handcuffs soon.
So what should Johnny do? Call an attorney and tell the police he will not be making any statements until he speaks with counsel. Of course, once Johnny tells the police he wants to speak with his lawyer he may be met with one of the oldest comebacks police officers have in their arsenal: Why do you need a lawyer? This question is designed to get a person to provide more information or even better to abandon the idea of hiring counsel. Some people in Johnny's position hear that question and think, “Well, I do not want to appear guilty” and so they make a statement to the police. These people are well-meaning suckers. You speak to an attorney because an attorney is a professional you hire to protect yourself and your rights. If the police officer believes one iota in your guilt, that officer will use every permissible (and some impermissible depending upon the officer) technique to get a statement from you. The smart play is to get an attorney to represent you during the police interview if you decide to do one. Personally, it would take extreme circumstances for me to let my client give a statement to the police.
If the police are arresting you, do not resist.
This is the most obvious advice I can advise and yet people often miss this one. If you are being arrested, do not fight, do not curse the officers out, do not do anything but go along peacefully. First, for your own safety. When you resist arrest the police will respond with overwhelming force and in certain departments, the proper response is making sure you have to visit a hospital. In others, it is a visit to the morgue.
When you resist, you look guilty and you look violent. That is not how you want to be perceived when it comes time to be in court. When I was a prosecutor, if I read that the defendant was belligerent with the police and resisted arrest, I made sure to entice that defendant to blow up on the stand, in front of the jury. Once that happened, the guilty verdict was just a matter of time.
Remember, resisting arrest is a a fight between you and the law on the streets and that is where the officer MUST win. So do not fight on that turf.
If your friend is getting arrested, stay out of the way
This happens often in college towns and small towns where everybody knows everybody. Police are called to a scene, like a nightclub. One person is being a nuisance, for example urinating against the wall of the nightclub, Then the police arrest the offending individual. This should be the end of it, but instead, the arrested individual's friends take umbrage and start causing a scene, maybe even going so far as to touch the police officer. At this point, the incident is now escalating, perhaps even with a crowd gathering. The safest thing for the officers to do is to handcuff and haul away the people who started the ruckus, which would be the offender's friends. This happens often and I have seen it with licensed attorneys and with law students. If you want to do your friend a favor, do not interfere with the arrest at all, even verbally. Just ask the officer where your friend will be booked and go there to bail him out.
The key to remember when interacting with police is to know your right to remain silent and exercise that right and use good sense instead of taking the chance you will be knocked senseless.