How to Interact with Police

Created by FindLaw's team of attorney writers and editors.

Most people's interaction with police is limited to being pulled over while driving for a traffic violation. This type of police interaction usually results in getting a ticket, or sometimes just a warning, and then going on your merry way. But, there are other times when a police interaction can lead to an arrest or formal criminal charges. In the following article, you'll learn some helpful hints for how to interact with police officers in a variety of situations.

How to Interact with Police if You're Stopped on the Street

If a police officer stops you on the street, you're not obligated by law to answer any questions the officer may ask. You can simply say, "I do not wish to speak to you" and walk away. The police officer, however, may attempt to continue the contact through further questioning. If the officer suspects that you've committed a crime, they'll try hard to get you to say something that can justify arresting you, and what you say can later be used against you in court. How to deal with such an encounter depends upon numerous factors.

If you've been involved in illegal activities and the officer seems to suspect as much, you would be very foolish to answer any questions. Even statements of intended denial may seriously hurt you in court. In this situation, if you're free to leave, you should excuse yourself and do so immediately. If you're not free to leave, you're essentially in police custody and have been "arrested" or "detained." Talking to the officer won't change that, which is why you should say nothing except basic pedigree information (your name, address, date of birth, etc.). Call or request a lawyer immediately, and refuse to answer any questions without a lawyer present.

How to Interact with Police if They're Looking for You

If the police are calling your home asking to speak with you, you may be a suspect in a criminal investigation. Quite often, the detective will seek to question you on the telephone about the incident, and then ask you to come voluntarily to the station house to "straighten things out." If you go to the station house, you will probably be asked to talk further about the case.

Ultimately, you'll be asked to sign a statement giving "your side of the story" (but usually written or typed by the detective). While this might seem like a golden opportunity to get out of trouble, it's often a trap. The statement will generally be constructed to include an admission of some guilt in the matter. After you sign it, you may then be handcuffed, fingerprinted and photographed. Sometimes the only basis the police had for arresting a person at all was the statement they gave to police. Often this statement (which the prosecutor will call a "confession") is the most damaging piece of evidence at trial.

If the police have an active arrest warrant or bench warrant for you, or believe that they already have enough evidence against you to constitute "probable cause" (although no warrant has been signed), your arrest may be unavoidable. It may be wise to voluntarily surrender. Of course, it's crucial that you don't make any statements to the police, or answer their questions, and quickly obtain legal counsel. An attorney can negotiate the terms of your voluntary surrender in a manner which can minimize your time in police or court custody.

How to Interact with Police if You've Been Taken into Custody

In Miranda v. Arizona, the United States Supreme Court held that prior to any questioning of a person in custody, the police must advise the person of certain rights. These rights are commonly called "Miranda Rights." They will read you these rights only if they intend to question you. After reading them to you, they will question you in an effort to get you to incriminate yourself. They'll write down your statements, and often ask you to sign a written version. Answering questions but refusing to sign a written statement doesn't help you. Oral confessions can be just as damaging as signed written ones. So, it's best not to answer any questions until you've spoken with a lawyer.

What if the police neglect to read you your rights? It could result in a major blow to the case against you. Even a full written confession to the crime can be thrown out of court. And if the confession led the police to further evidence against you, that evidence could be thrown out too! However, although evidence is thrown out, remember that the case itself is not necessarily dismissed. If there's other evidence of your guilt, that other evidence could still be used to prosecute you.

How to Interact with Police if You're Stopped for Drunk Driving

Contrary to what some people may think, there is no constitutional right to refuse a breath or chemical test to determine the level of alcohol in your body. In fact, some states have implied consent laws, under which drivers are deemed to have consented to testing just by the act of driving in that state.

If you've been stopped and arrested for drunk driving, you'll be faced with the decision of whether to take such a test. On the one hand, refusing to take the test has its consequences as well: your license can be revoked merely for the refusal (even if you're perfectly sober). Additionally, your refusal may be admissible as evidence of your guilt at a trial of the drunk driving charge, and some prosecutor's offices will not extend reduced plea offers on refusal cases.

Talk to an Attorney if You're Concerned About Facing Criminal Charges

You don't have to wait until you're arrested or charges are filed to retain an attorney. Apart from solving problems, legal advice can also help keep problems from developing. If you're under suspicion for a criminal act, remember that you are not (yet) under arrest and you have the right to legal counsel once you are arrested. Learn about your rights and legal options by speaking with a local defense attorney today.

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