Know Your Rights: When Stopped by Police

Know Your Rights: When Stopped by Police

IEV Staff

Analysis of police stops across the country in 2018 by the Bureau of Justice Statistics revealed among persons 16 years of age and older, about 61.5 million Americans, or 24%, had at least one contact with police during the 12-month period—up from 21% in 2015.

2018 police contacts. (Infographic created by Leo Cabral)

The number of police-initiated contacts were basically equal between Whites at 12% and Blacks at 11% during the report period. Yet, being stopped by the police can be stressful and for far too many, especially for people of color, the interaction can quickly go bad.


(Source: Rosemary Ketchum from Pexels)

If you are stopped

If you are stopped while in a car, the police must have probable cause, meaning a strong, unbiased factual reason for believing that you have committed a traffic violation. Although the burden of de-escalation in such circumstances is the responsibility of officer(s), as witnessed across the country, some police tend to ignore this responsibility.

Therefore, to reduce risks to yourself in such circumstances it is recommended to stay calm, do not run, or obstruct the officers, neither should you lie or give false documents. It is also important to keep your hands where the police can always see them.

While it is important to stay calm and refrain from exhibiting hostility toward the officer(s) it is equally as important to know your rights.

  • You have the right to remain silent.

You do not have to answer any questions. If you chose to exercise this right it is important to say so out loud. In some states however, you may be required to give your name to identify yourself and an officer may arrest you for refusing to do so. California does not have a statute mandating that a detainee identify themself.

  • You do not have to consent to a search of yourself or your belongings.

Simply say, “I do not consent to a search.” The police, however, may pat down your clothing if they suspect a weapon. If you refuse consent it may not stop the officer from conducting a search against your will, but a timely objection before or during the search can help preserve your rights for any legal proceeding that may follow.

  • If you are not under arrest, you have a right to ask, “Am I free to leave?”

If you are free to leave – leave calmly.

  • You have the right to a government-appointed lawyer.

If you are arrested, you have a right to an attorney and you should ask for one immediately. If you cannot afford one, an attorney must be provided by the government.

  • You do not have to answer immigration related questions.

You do not have to answer questions about where you were born, whether you are a U.S. citizen, or how you entered the country. This may vary however, depending on whether you are in an airport, at an international border, etc. Visit for more specific guidance about how to deal with immigration-related questions.

If you are arrested or detained

State your wish to remain silent and ask for a lawyer immediately. Do not give any explanations or excuses. Do not say anything, sign anything, or make any decisions without a lawyer. You have the right to make a local phone call. The police cannot listen if you call a lawyer. However, they can and often do listen if you call anyone else.

If you believe your rights were violated

Write down everything you remember, including the officer(s)’ badges and patrol car numbers, which agency the officer(s) were from, and any other details. It is also important to get contact information for any witnesses.

If you are injured

Seek medical attention immediately, take photographs of your injuries and file a written complaint with the agency’s internal affairs division or civilian complaint board. In most cases, you can file a complaint anonymously if you wish.

(Sources: American Civil Liberties Union; NAACP)

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