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Handling Police Encounters – Knowledge Calm = Success

Posted on November 9, 2023 in

You’re driving along and suddenly, red flashing lights appear in your rear-view mirror your heart skips a beat; you’re out in public and the police approach and want to ask you some questions, your pulse rate goes haywire and you panic; or you’re at home and the police knock on your door your heart races, you don’t know what to do.

Police stops can be problematic, stressful, tricky, scary (depending on the person’s previous experience with law enforcement), and traumatic.

When encountering police, you have significant legal rights. The following recommended protocols (although not exhaustive) will help protect those rights and prepare you for a successful encounter with law enforcement.

Typically, police encounters can be divided into three categories:

  • Police approach a person while the person is in or on a vehicle.
  • Police approach a person in a public place (on the street or public building).
  • Police approach a person in a private place (home or business).

Police Stops While in or on a Vehicle

Police may stop and detain you only if they have a reasonable suspicion or probable cause that you are about to commit or have committed a crime or a traffic offense.

When a police officer traveling behind you turns on her flashing lights, if you do nothing else collect your thoughts and remain calm; stop your vehicle in a safe place, preferably where other people are present, when reasonably possible. If it is night time turn on the internal light, open the window part way, and place your hands on the wheel. You must, but only upon request, show your license, registration, and proof of insurance.

Further, you are not required to answer any questions (so don’t) nor are your passengers. Both drivers and passengers have the right to remain silent. In an attempt to end the encounter, ask to leave.  “Am I free to go now?”  If you are not free to go, to protect your rights state to the officer “I want to speak to a lawyer and now I will remain silent.”

The police may order you out of your vehicle along with your passengers (for the officer’s safety) pending the completion of the stop. You must follow the order and get out of the vehicle. If you don’t, the officer may attempt to extract you by force.  Once you are outside the vehicle an officer may only pat you down if the officer reasonably suspects that you are armed and dangerous (e.g., there’s a bulge in your waistband).

If an officer asks to search your vehicle, politely refuse. After you refuse the officer will have to obtain a warrant to search your vehicle. It is unlawful for the police to arrest you for refusing to consent to a search.

However, if the officer has reasonable suspicion or probable cause your vehicle contains evidence of a crime, (marijuana joint, in plain view, in an ash tray) your vehicle can be searched without your consent or a warrant.

If you’re given a ticket, sign it; otherwise you can be arrested.

Police Stops While in a Public Place

Police may stop and detain you only if they have a reasonable suspicion that you have committed a crime (you fit the description of an alleged perpetrator), or you are committing, or are about to commit a crime.

The police will usually initiate an encounter in a public place by approaching you and attempting to ask you questions. When this occurs, remain calm.

During an encounter with police in a public place you do not have to answer any questions. It’s not a crime to refuse to answer an officer’s questions. It’s in your best interest to remain silent. If you are free to go, walk away calmly. If you are not free to go, invoke your rights; “I want to speak to a lawyer and now I will remain silent.”

The police may only “frisk” or “pat you down” if they suspect a concealed weapon. Politely make it clear to the officer that you are not consenting to the “frisk” or “pat down.”

The police may not lawfully search you (including your pockets, phone, wallet, purse, bags, laptop) unless they have probable cause to believe they will find evidence of a crime on you or you are placed under arrest.

During a public encounter, you may only be arrested if the officer has probable cause to believe you committed a crime. Most arrests in public places are conducted without a warrant.

If placed under arrest, keep calm. To protect your rights, tell the officer “I want to speak to a lawyer and now I will remain silent.”

Police Encounters While In A Private Place

Typically, your rights are strongest when you are in a private place like your dwelling (home or apartment) or business.

When the police knock on your door, again if you do nothing else, remain calm. Be quiet; if the officers hear anything suspicious (running footsteps), they may break down or through the door. Once the officers have identified themselves, you must respond.

Sometimes the best course of action is to step outside to talk with the officers and close the door behind you. Take your driver’s license or valid photo identification, your cell phone, and your keys before exiting your home or business.

Let the officers do all the talking. Just listen. In an attempt to end the encounter, ask the officers if you are free to go back into your home or business. If you are not free to go, invoke your rights; “I want to speak to a lawyer and now I will remain silent.”

If they have a search warrant, make sure it is signed by a judge, and that the address is correct. If the warrant appears proper on its face, you must step aside and let them in.

If the officers do not have a warrant, do not let them inside. If they enter, make it clear to them that you do not consent to the search.

If they have an arrest warrant, ask to see it. Do not go back into your dwelling or business.


Even if you are not a U.S. citizen you have the rights mentioned above.  In addition, you do not have to answer any questions from the police concerning your immigration status.  Although not a citizen of the United States, you are protected under the United States Constitution and have the right to remain silent.

Recording the Encounter

When encountering police there will be situations, notwithstanding how polite you are or how well you follow the protocol discussed above, when you will still be harassed, humiliated, or even injured. Therefore, it might be in your best interest to record the encounter. There is no law that prohibits the recording of a police encounter as long as the officer is aware of the recording.

It is unfortunate that during some encounters the police become the judge, jury, and yes sometimes even executioner in the court of the street. It’s an encounter you will not win and you should do everything possible to avoid without surrendering your dignity and humanity.

It is the job of a seasoned and fearless attorney to bring justice to a police encounter in which the police fell short of respecting, protecting, or serving you.

If you need an experienced and aggressive criminal defense attorney to protect your rights, call Howard A. Snader at 602-899-0590 today.