Most of the time, when a total stranger starts talking to you on the street, the length of that interaction is determined by how long you wish to continue it, and you have the right to leave whenever you want. However, if a police officer starts talking to you, you might not have this guarantee. This article serves to discuss the various police-citizen encounters and what you can do if you find yourself on the fuzzy end of the law enforcement lollipop.
There are three types of interactions you can have with a police officer: consensual, detention, arrest. As we begin, remember, if you are approached by a member of the police force, pull out your camera and film the interaction. Mundane as most conversations are, you might consider it unnecessary to record the officer. If the situation does escalate, it will be to the benefit of all parties if there is evidence of everyone’s actions.
At the start of a consensual interaction, an officer of the law has as much legal right to begin a conversation with you as anybody else on the street. You do not have to identify yourself and may walk away at any time. You can also refuse to speak with them entirely; “I don’t answer questions” seems to get the point across. Of course, no police officer is required to tell you any of this and you may feel compelled to converse.
How can you find out if you are allowed to leave? Ask either, “Am I free to go?” or, “Am I being detained?” and the officer will tell you. Should the officer avoid the question, keep asking. If you are free, leave the scene, but keep your camera filming until you are a safe distance away. If not, keep your camera rolling because things are getting interesting for you.
Having some sort of reasonable suspicion that you committed a crime, a peace officer may briefly detain you to learn more. Allegedly, this period may only last around 20 minutes, after which you must either be arrested or let go. California has no stop-and-identify statute, so you still are not required to identify yourself. If the officer has reason to believe you may be “armed and dangerous,” he or she can search your outer clothes for weapons. In this “Terry stop” or pat down, any contraband the officer feels on you falls under the plain view doctrine, so be mindful of what’s in your pockets. You are not required to agree to any larger searches, and it is best that you do not.
Obtaining consent for a search from you can be done in different ways; sometimes through simple questions (“What’s in the bag?”), sometimes through demands (“Open the bag!”.) Unless the officer has a warrant or you are under arrest, you need not comply, as you are protected against such behavior in the United States by the Fourth Amendment: prohibition of unlawful searches. State loudly that you do not consent so that you know the officer heard and, more importantly, that your camera recorded it.
Should you find yourself victim of an unlawful search, do not fight it. Such breaches can only really be dealt with in court after the fact, and any attempt to fight back will almost certainly be responded to with aggression. In the moment, there is nothing you can do except film the problem, so have that camera out, preferably streaming to somewhere other than your phone for posterity.
Maybe you actually did commit a crime or maybe you didn’t. Regardless, if the officer finds probable cause during your interaction, you’re under arrest! Prepare to have your stuff confiscated. You do not have many options here, except to request your lawyer and remain silent. Really, anything you say can be used against you in ways you might not even be aware of, so only talk to your lawyer. Definitely provide identification at this point, as sitting in a police station booked as John/Jane Doe does not help anyone. Ultimately, try to avoid getting yourself into this situation, Gauchos.
It can be argued that if you have nothing to hide, you may as well identify yourself or allow a search, because, at the end of the day, police officers are only doing their job, and complying with their orders will help the process run smoothly. While there is nothing wrong with this mentality, if you believe you have not earned such treatment, that your rights are more important than anyone’s job, you should know that you have options in handling the situation.
Michael Lyons’ right to remain silent won’t stop him from defending his rights as a member of society.