How Should You Handle Police Encounters?
March 12th, 2021
Encounters with the police generally fall into one of three categories: (1) in a public place; (2) in a private place; or (3) in a car.
Police encounters can be tricky, especially because police are trained to notice things other observers may not. They are also armed and authorized to use force if the situation warrants it. Special care should be taken to protect yourself and your rights, and to try to avoid doing anything that might incriminate you or lead to your arrest.
Police Encounters in Public
You probably encounter police officers multiple times a week, when you drive by police cars on the road or see a police officer in the park. In many situations, you will be able to avoid interacting with the police entirely or end the encounter as quickly as you wish. But regardless of the situation, remember that police officers are trained to look for criminal activity, even during what seems to be a friendly conversation.
In a consensual encounter, police officers will speak to you without reasonable suspicion that you committed a crime. Examples include saying hello, nodding to a police officer as you walk by, or even having a simple conversation. You may choose to speak to the police officer, but are not required to, and can leave at any time. If you want to end the conversation, you can say something like “I have somewhere I need to be.” But remember - even if a police officer is engaging you in seemingly casual conversation, they may suspect you have committed a crime or may see something that causes them to believe you committed a crime.
Other times, police officers will approach you believing that you are in need of assistance. For example, if you fall asleep in your car, a police officer might approach to ask if you are ok. But police officers are also on the lookout for signs that you may be breaking the law, such as if you fell asleep behind the wheel because you were under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
Finally, officers may approach you with the belief that you have committed a crime. They will ask you questions, such as your name and address, and to explain your actions. But a police officer can only arrest you if they have probable cause to believe you have committed a crime.
To minimize the likelihood of being arrested, anytime you encounter a police officer you can and should ask if you are free to go and say as little as possible. If you are not free to go, tell the officer that you are invoking your right to remain silent and that you want to speak to a lawyer.
Regardless of the situation, do your best to remain calm. Arguing with the officer will not help the situation, and will actually make it worse. Avoid touching the police officer and keep your hands in view unless you tell the officer what you are going to do, such as saying “I am going to reach into my pocket to get my wallet.”
Police Encounters in Private Places Like a Home
You have the most protection against police overreach when you are in your own home. Use common sense to maintain those protections, minimize the chance of an arrest, and protect your rights.
If the police come to the door, stay quiet. If police hear something suspicious, like people running around or flushing a toilet (to get rid of evidence) they may suspect that a crime has been or is being committed and may try to break down the door.
Don’t open the door for the police. Ask who it is and why they are there.
Do what you can to avoid raising further suspicion, but DO NOT LET THE POLICE INSIDE. You can step outside to talk to the police, then close the door. Try not to let them see inside the house. If the police see something suspicious, they have probable cause to believe a crime was committed and may try to search your house. However, if the police have a warrant to search your home, you are required to let them inside.
Police Encounters in a Car
You have fewer rights in a car than in your home, and the United States Supreme Court has recognized special rules that relate to criminal activity in vehicles.
First, try to avoid being stopped by the police. Follow the law: don’t speed, be sure to come to a complete stop at a stop sign, use your turn signal, and don’t weave. Sometimes, police officers will follow you and look for a reason to stop you.
If you are being followed, pull into a well-lit public place like a convenience store or gas station. The police will need to decide whether to stop you or to keep moving and look for another car to follow and stop.
You may also want to get the number of the police car and make note of the time and location. If you think the police officer was following you for no good reason, or if you were followed for an extended time or on more than one occasion, it might be worth considering whether you are being targeted for an inappropriate reason.
If you are stopped in your car:
- Stay in your car unless the officer tells you to get out.
- Have your license and insurance cards ready. Roll down the window so you can speak to the officer and hand them the documents.
- Keep your hands in plain sight at all times. If it is dark, turn on the dome light so the police officer can see your hands. If the police cannot see your hands, they might believe you are hiding evidence or concealing a weapon.
- Tell your passengers to stay quiet and keep their hands visible at all times.
- DO NOT CONSENT TO A SEARCH OF YOUR VEHICLE. The police cannot legally search your vehicle unless: (a) they have probable cause to believe you committed a crime; or (b) you consent to the search. If the police search your car anyway, make it clear that you do not consent to the search.
Elmen Legal: Aggressive Criminal Defense Attorney Serving Ann Arbor, Michigan
Police encounters can lead to you being arrested and charged with a crime. But by following these suggestions, you can proactively take steps to minimize the chances of being arrested and to protect your rights if you are charged with a crime.
If you have had a bad encounter with the police and were charged with a crime, Elmen Legal is here to help. Based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Robert Elmen proudly represents people who have been charged with crimes throughout southern Michigan. Learn more about Robert Elmen’s criminal law services, read reviews from other clients, and get answers to Frequently Asked Questions, then contact Elmen Legal today.