What are Your Rights When Talking to the Police? Part 1

When people hear that you are a criminal defense attorney, or any kind of attorney, they often ask you about their rights when talking to the police. They want to know, for example, if their rights have been violated, or if the police did something wrong. They also want to know what their rights are, and what they can say when they encounter police on the street. This week we are going to take a look at several common questions people have about talking to, or interacting with, the police.

Do I have to talk to the police?

Lawyers get this question all the time. Luckily, it’s an easy one to answer.

You are, in general, never under any legal obligation to speak to the police or answer their questions. If you are a suspect in a crime, you have the right to remain silent.  If you are not a suspect then you are under no legal obligation to stop what you are doing to talk to the police.  So if you want to refuse to answer police questions, you are able to do so.

Of course, this is often easier said than done. People, in general, are social animals. We have a natural tendency to want to be respectful of authority.  So, when a police officer asks you a question, your natural inclination may be to answer those questions so that you can appear honest and law-abiding.  Note however that, while it is not illegal to decline to talk to the police, it is often illegal to lie to them.

Whatever you say to the police may be used against you.  As a result, in an interaction with law enforcement, it is usually safer to be polite but to say as little as possible.  If you are unsure whether it is wise to give a statement to the police, talk to a lawyer first.  If they feel that making a statement is in your best interest they can assist you with that process and try to ensure that nothing you say comes back to cause you problems later.

When can the police search me or my property?

This is a tricky question as there are a lot of varied scenarios that might or might not allow the police to conduct a search.  The one easy answer is that the police can always search if you give them permission.  It is very common for the police to ask a suspect to let them search a car, a residence, or a purse or bag.  And just as in situations where people are being questioned by law enforcement, many folks feel pressured to give that consent.  The police may try to pressure you into allowing them to search, may threaten to get a warrant or a drug dog, and may say that they will go easier on you if you consent.  The reality is that they might be able to do some or all of those things.  But a person is never required to consent to a search.  Also, understand that consent can also be withdrawn at any time.

What can I do when the police illegally stop me or search my things?

There may be situations where you feel that the police have conducted an illegal search or have stopped you without a legal basis.  You may feel that your rights have been violated.  If you are right, then there will be consequences in court for the government’s ability to prosecute you.  Evidence that is obtained illegally is not admissible in court.  The important thing to recognize is that these issues will have to be litigated in court.

The rules regarding searches and seizures and police questioning are complex.  If you find yourself in a situation where you feel that your rights have been violated by law enforcement when you are charged with a crime your best strategy is to bring all the information to your attorney.  Tell your lawyer what happened in as much detail as possible and they will be able to tell you how this might impact your case and stand up for your rights.