When I was young, my parents always told me that if I were in any kind of trouble, I should try to find a policeman. A man in uniform was always there “to protect and to serve.” Things have changed a bit over the last half-decade and I don’t repeat my parents’ advice. Instead, I tell people to remember eight things:

1) Keep Private Items Out of View

Police do not need a search warrant in order to confiscate any items that are in plain view that they might think are illegal. I remember a young man visiting my campus when I was in college who was arrested because he (a) had a California license plate on his car and (b) the officer saw what he thought were marijuana seeds on the passenger’s seat. They were sesame seeds from the top of a fast-food hamburger but the young man was still arrested.

2) Be Courteous & Non-Confrontational

If you are pulled over in a car, do the following:

  • Park in a safe spot,
  • Turn off your car’s ignition,
  • Turn on the interior lights if it is nighttime,
  • Roll down the window, and
  • Keep your hands on the steering wheel.

Officers want to be able to see you and your hands for their own safety. Wait until the officer asks to see your paperwork before retrieving any documents.

Be courteous. Ask why were you are being stopped. Don’t play twenty questions with the officer. If the officer asks why you think you were stopped, tell him/her that you don’t know. Don’t apologize as that can be considered an admission of guilt and used against you later in court.

Show your identification if requested. Be respectful and non-confrontational. Refer to the police as “Sir,” “Ma’am,” or “Officer.” Remain calm and quiet while the officer is reviewing your documents. If the officer writes you a ticket, accept it quietly and never complain. Listen to any instruction on paying the fine or contesting the ticket, and immediately leave.

3) Say No to Search Requests

If a police officer asks your permission to search, the answer is always no. Refuse to consent by saying, “Officer, I do not consent to any searches of my private property.” You don’t need to explain why. The only reason an officer asks your permission is because he doesn’t have enough evidence to search without your consent. If you consent to a search request you give up one of the most important constitutional rights you have—your Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures.

Police officers are not required to inform you of your rights before asking you to consent to a search. If the officer searches you in spite of your objection, your attorney can argue that any evidence found during the search was discovered through an illegal search and should be thrown out of court.

4) Determine if You Can Leave

You have the right to terminate an encounter with a police officer unless you are being detained under police custody or have been arrested. The general rule is that you don’t have to answer any questions that the police ask you. This rule comes from the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which protects you against self-incrimination. If you cannot tell if you are allowed to leave, say to the officer, “I have to be on my way. Am I free to go?”

If the officer says “Yes,” tell him to have a nice day, and leave immediately. If the officer’s answer is ambiguous, or if he asks you another unrelated question, persist by asking “Am I being detained, or can I go now?” If the officer says “No,” you are being detained, and you may be placed under arrest. Reassert your rights outlined above, and follow Rules #5 and #6.

5) Remain Silent and Ask for an Attorney

Do not answer questions without your lawyer present. Even casual small talk can come back to haunt you. As you have seen on television anything you say can, and probably will, be used against you.

The police are not there to understand your plight or help you find your way out of a bad situation. They are there to assure your conviction. You are almost always better off not answering any questions about anything. Assert your Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights by saying these exact words: “Officer, I’d like to remain silent and I’d like to speak with a lawyer.”

Regardless of what you are told by an investigating officer, you have nothing to gain by talking to the police … and everything to lose. By the way, the United States Supreme Court has decided that investigating officers can legally lie to you[1]. So don’t talk to them. This is particularly common during interrogations in which officers might tell you that “your friend already gave you up, so you might as well come clean.” Again…DON’T TALK TO THEM.

6) Do Not Try to Bargain

Police officers will often tell you that your cooperation will make things easier for you, and many people think that they might be let off easy if they are honest and direct with the police. The only thing it makes easier is the officer’s job. Do not let the threat of arrest scare you into admitting guilt. Ask to speak with a lawyer, and remain silent.

7) Do Not Physically Resist

If the police proceed to detain, search, or arrest you despite your wishes, DO NOT PHYSICALLY RESIST. You may state clearly but non-confrontationally: “Officer, I am not resisting arrest and I do not consent to any searches.” Or you may assert your rights by simply saying nothing until you can speak with an attorney.

8) Where to Go For More Help

If you feel your rights are being violated, wait until you can talk to a lawyer. If you don’t have your own lawyer you can fill out an application for a public defender to defend you. You can also call the Pacific Legal Group at (801) 788-4122. We always provide a free consultation.


[1] See Frazier v. Cupp, 394 U.S. 731 (1969). Here the defendant was told that a co-defendant had already admitted to the crime, which was a lie. The officer offered false sympathy for the defendant, suggesting that the victim had provoked an attack by making homosexual advances. When the defendant stopped talking and requested a lawyer, the officer told him “You can’t be in any more trouble than you are in now,” and proceeded with the questioning. The defendant argued on appeal that the confession had been involuntary and should have been excluded but the U.S. Supreme Court brushed aside that argument, concluding that “[t]he fact that the police misrepresented the statements that [the co-defendant] had made is, while relevant, insufficient in our view to make this otherwise voluntary confession inadmissible.”

About Robert Avery

Rob is a graduate of the J. Reuben Clark law school at Brigham Young University and practices primarily in criminal defense, general litigation, and general business representation. Rob is a founding partner of the Pacific Legal Group. He is also an adjunct professor at the J. Reuben Clark Law School and an accomplished writer. Rob is married and has four children and three grandchildren.