A Citizen’s Guide to Surviving an Encounter with Law Enforcement

A citizen interaction with law enforcement can be an intimidating and scary situation. Recent events have highlighted the tragic consequences that can flow from some of these interactions from both law enforcement and citizen’s respective perspectives. The following is a citizen’s guide to surviving an encounter with law enforcement.

  1. Avoid The Interaction. First rule is avoiding being in the position to need the remaining rules in the first place. If you can avoid interaction with law enforcement, avoid it. Do not call attention to yourself. Too many people end up in bad situations because they thrust themselves into a situation that they can otherwise avoid. If your friend or family member is involved in their own encounter, certainly assist by documenting but you jumping in to save the day via a legal debate with the officer is only going to result in you accompanying them to the station.
  2. Document, Document, Document. ALWAYS document any and all interaction with law enforcement, in their entirety if possible. All citizens have the constitutional right to document their interaction with law enforcement officers in the normal course of the performance of their public duties. There is no good reason why you would not and why law enforcement would object. With the majority of the population owning smart phones, the tools necessary to document interactions are at the public’s fingertips. Audio recording is less confrontational, takes up less storage space on your device, and is more apt to capture the officer’s true approach to the situation. Do not rely on law enforcement to document the situation. Document it yourself so that you can have ready access to the documentation if and when you need it without having to trust law enforcement to properly preserve and retain their versions.
  3. Move Slowly and Announce Intentions. Quick movements cause quick reactions. Quick reactions leave little time to evaluate the situation and are more likely to result in a mistake. You are likely scared and intimidated but appreciate the fact that law enforcement is also on edge, especially when conducting a traffic stop. If you need to reach for your wallet to produce an identification, announce it. If you need to reach into your glove box to retrieve registration and insurance, announce it. Sure you have the right to move around until you are formally restrained by an officer but why risk a knee-jerk reaction mistake that can have tragic consequences. The officer will no doubt appreciate the courtesy you are showing him or her which can never hurt.
  4. Remain Calm and Respectful. Cooler heads always prevail in the long run. Even if the officer is aggressive or agitated, keep your cool. A calm person always has a better memory of a particular event. Furthermore, in the event that a citation or charges do arise out of a situation, how a case is ultimately resolved can turn on the person’s demeanor. There is a common question asked in these circumstances: Who is the asshole in the room? Don’t be the asshole. Let the officer be that person. 
  5. Less is More. The less you say the better. Chances are, there is nothing you are going to say that will convince an officer to do anything other than what they intend to do in the first place. Who you are, who you know, or how terrible your life will be if the officer goes through with charges are not things that should be discussed. Just ask Ohio State quarterback, J.T. Barrett how that turns out. Even if the officer is completely wrong, you are documenting the interaction if you followed Rule #2, know that you will come out on top in the long run. Let them walk into the trap, don’t warn them that it’s about to close. Also, be direct when answering questions and know what questions are not in your best interest to answer. You never have to answer questions while in the custody of law enforcement that may be incriminating in nature. Now is not the time to be making up stories. Respectfully decline to answer a question if you are not 100% certain on how to answer it. The less you say the better. 
  6. You and Only You. Nothing puts a police officer on edge more than the arrival or participation of additional people than he/she cannot account for or monitor. If you see or hear friends of family members approaching the officers, calmly tell them that it is ok and to stay their distance. Remember, you are already following Rule #2. If they can help document as well that is fantastic, have them do so from a safe distance so as not to agitate the situation any further. Keep in mind that if backup is called in, the responding officers often times do not have the full story and arrive uninformed with heightened adrenaline. This is when a situation can go from uncomfortable to terrible in a blink of an eye. 
  7. Know Your Rights. Don’t pretend to know your rights and hope you are correct. Take the time, educate yourself, and know your rights. Rights vary from State to State and situation to situation. Officers take advantage of people that do not know their rights or are not confident enough in their knowledge of those rights to effectively exercise them.
  8. Be Firm and Decisive. Uncertainty is a sign of weakness. Certainly remain calm and respectful but be decisive in your decision making and be firm in your invocation of your rights. Once you make a decision, stick with it. Now is not the time to waffle back and forth on what you want to do. Have a plan, stick to that plan. If you have taken the time to educate yourself, chances are you are making the right decision. 
  9. Ask Questions. If you have questions about the nature or status of the interaction, ask. Law enforcement may not provide legal advice but if they chose to explain things and do so incorrectly or provide inaccurate or misleading information, that may be the key to your case. In any event, questions like: May I ask why you stopped me? Am I free to leave? Am I under arrest? What am I being charged with? May I contact my attorney? are all questions that should be in every citizens repertoire when encountering law enforcement. Those are a bits of information that ever citizen is entitled to and an officer doing their job correctly should be more than happy to answer. Once you get an answer though, remember the previous rules. Accept the answer whether you agree with it or not and govern your behavior accordingly.
  10. When You Are Free to Leave, Leave. When you are given the green light, take it. There is no reason to extend your interaction with law enforcement any longer than is necessary. If you are given the opportunity to have someone pick you up or take you home, don’t stand around and debate the legality of the initial interaction in the first place. There will always be time for that after you have arrived home safely and have the opportunity to consult with legal counsel, equipped with your recording of the event. Bottom line, when you get the: “You are free to leave” from the officer, take it!

Some of this information may seem elementary or common sense and a lot of it is. However, in the heat of the moment, having a plan, as elementary as it may be, is half of the battle. Thinking through an event, regardless of how unlikely it may be to occur, is the best way to ensure that one effectively and correctly responds to it in the event that it does occur. It never hurts to be prepared but it always hurts not to be prepared.