Police Encounters: What to Do When Stopped by Police

June 3, 2020

By Jill K. Sanders, Esq.

Police officers routinely stop people and ask them questions. This is part of their job to help keep our communities safe. It can be tense for the officer, as he or she doesn’t know if the person they’ve stopped is truly dangerous. It can also be scary for you if you don’t know how to respond to a police inquiry. Thus, during police encounters, it’s important to know what to expect and what your legal rights are.


Police Encounters on the Street

Police can at any time ask you to stop and answer questions. However, they are only permitted to detain you if there is reasonable suspicion that you committed, are committing, or are about to commit a crime. If you are stopped, ask if you are under arrest or or free to leave. You do not need to show your ID unless you are arrested. Note that you have the right not to speak, and to do so simply tell the police, “I wish to remain silent.”

You can only be arrested if the police have probable cause to believe you committed a crime. If you are arrested, remain silent and ask for an attorney. Do not resist arrest, even if you believe in your innocence. You can challenge the criminal charges later in court.

In any police encounter, do not interfere with or obstruct the police. This can result in your arrest and a criminal charge. Don’t bad-mouth the police, even if you believe what is happening is unreasonable. You also shouldn’t run away – if they have reasonable suspicion that you’ve committed a crime, they can pursue you.

Note that all officers are required to provide you their name and shield number if you request it. In New York City, officers must affirmatively provide this information whenever investigating criminal activity.


When You’re Frisked and Searched

During a stop, an officer who suspects that you might be dangerous has a right to conduct a “pat-down” search of your outer clothing. If he or she feels any weapon-like object, the officer may reach in and get it. The officer can also seize anything that obviously feels like contraband. An officer can only handcuff you or order you to lie on ground for good reason.

You don’t have to consent to a search of yourself or your belongings. If the police say they have a search warrant, ask to see it. If they don’t show you the warrant, tell them you won’t consent to the search. However, do not interfere if they then commence a search without your consent; you can challenge their actions later in court. You cannot be arrested or given a summons simply for refusing to consent to a search.


When You’re Stopped in Your Car

When a police officer signals you to pull over, you should do so safely and as soon as possible. Then, turn off your car and remove the keys from the ignition. Turn off any music you have playing, and discard your cigarette or gum. If it’s nighttime, turn on your car’s interior light. Roll down your windows, and place both hands on your steering wheel. Stay in the car until and unless the officer directs you to get out.

A police officer can request your driver’s license, registration, and proof of insurance. When an officer asks you for such a document, tell them where it is in your car and ask if you can reach for it before getting it for them. Otherwise, you do not have to speak to the officer and can indicate you’d like to remain silent. If you’re suspected of driving while intoxicated the police may ask you to perform additional tests, as we discussed in a recent blog.

Note that a warrant is not always required to search a vehicle. Police can also make observations of anything in plain view in your car. If a police officer conducts a warrantless search, you should state you do not consent to that search. If they ask for your permission, you have the right to refuse consent to search. As indicated above, do not interfere if they search without your consent; you can challenge the search later. Note that if you are arrested, an inventory search of your car will be performed.


Police Encounters in Your Home

Police can only enter your home with your permission, with a warrant, or if there is an emergency. You do not have to consent to police stepping into your home. You can also refuse consent for them to search your home. And as always, you also do not have to speak with them or answer any questions.

If the police state they have a warrant, ask them to see it. Make sure it has the correct information on it, such your address. If they don’t show you the warrant, tell them you won’t consent to the search. Do not interfere if they search without your consent; you can challenge the actions of the police later in court. Note that you cannot be arrested or given a summons simply for refusing to consent to a search.


Final Notes on Police Encounters

Overall, the best advice is to be polite, non-confrontational, and compliant. If you believe the officer has done something wrong, wait to challenge that after your encounter is over – either with the police department or in the courts. The most important thing is that everyone – both you and the police officer – walks away from a police encounter unharmed.

  • Stay calm. Do not escalate the situation.
  • Use your words and actions to show you aren’t a safety risk to the police officer.
  • Remember that anything you say or do can be used against you.
  • Don’t argue, and don’t use bad language directed at the police.
  • Avoid making sudden movements and keep your hands in plain view.
  • Don’t run or resist, even if you believe you are innocent.
  • Don’t touch a police officer.
  • Do not make any statements regarding the incident.
  • If you are arrested, ask for a lawyer immediately.
  • When you think you’ve been treated unfairly, ask for the officers’ names and badge numbers.
  • If you are injured, take photos of the injuries immediately after receiving medical treatment.