ORLANDO, Fla. – Nothing induces anxiety quite like looking in your rearview mirror and seeing flashing red and blue lights trailing behind you.
Erin Keith, a staff attorney at Detroit Justice Center, knows the amount of panic that traffic stops and other police encounters can cause, particularly for men and women of color, so she wants residents to be prepared and know their rights.
Regardless of the situation, she said never run or resist arrest in any way and do your best to remain calm.
“One of the most important things when I’m teaching people about knowing their rights is the idea that you should know your rights, not show your rights, or say your rights, not display your rights. And what that basically means is if an officer is violating your rights, and you’re aware of this, it’s great to make mental notes. You can even say out loud, like, ‘I do not consent to a search,’ because you know that the officer has no grounds to search you. What you shouldn’t do is attempt to fight back to prevent the illegal search,” Keith said.
Taking mental notes will help when you later convey the sequence of events to an attorney who could possibly get the charges dismissed if your rights were violated and there’s evidence, such as body camera video, to prove it.
Keith offered an acronym to help remember what to do and what to ask during police encounters.
F: Am I free to leave?
A: Am I being arrested?
D: Do not consent to a search.
ES: Express silence.
“If you’re walking down the street, an officer might say, ‘Hey, how are you?’ You, of course, can speak back. But if they try to stop you, you can confirm that it is a stop by saying, ‘Am I free to leave?’ The next thing you could do is ask, ‘Am I being arrested?’ if you feel like the stop has gone on for quite a little bit of time and the questions are getting more invasive beyond just the general, ‘Hi, how are you doing? Did you see anybody in this area?’ or, ‘We’re looking for a missing child,’ something like that where you can tell it’s turning into more of an investigation. You could ask, ‘Am I being arrested for what charge?’” Keith said.
When it comes to searches, Keith said to make sure you verbally tell officers that you don’t consent to one being performed.
“The reason why that’s super helpful is officers don’t have to tell you, unlike Miranda warnings — where they tell you you have a right to remain silent or the right to a lawyer — they don’t have to tell you that you do not have to consent to a search,” Keith said.
If you’re being arrested, officers do have the authority to search what’s called your lunge distance, or wingspan, to make sure you don’t have any weapons, but that authority doesn’t extend to the trunk of your car, for example.
“So what that means is the officer may have some exigent circumstances or something that they come up with later to give them grounds (to search) but at least they can’t say, ‘You said yes,’ because the moment you say, ‘Sure, go ahead,’ even if you’re a little bit nervous or scared, you’ve given consent to search your trunk and you waive some of your rights,” Keith said.
At any point, you can also express your right to remain silent and, according to Keith, it may be necessary to say that multiple times.
“You have to assert your right to remain silent, you have to expressly say, ‘I want to remain silent,’ and after you say that all questioning should stop,” Keith said. “Now, if you re-initiate conversation with the officer by saying, ‘Hey, like, actually, I’ll tell you what you want to know, can I get a deal?’ then you’ve re-waived that right to remain silent. So it’s good to expressly say, ‘I want to remain silent.’”
The next most important thing is to ask for a lawyer, even if you can’t afford one you’ll be given a court-appointed attorney. Once you ask for that lawyer, officers should immediately put an end to all questioning.
“If they continue asking you questions like, ’You sure you want a lawyer? I can’t help you after you get a lawyer,’ — police can lie to you, but you cannot lie to the police without facing severe penalty. So it’s extremely important that once you say, ‘I want a lawyer now,’ you don’t answer any more questions even if they continue trying to pry information out of you,” Keith said.
Traffic stop safety
From a law enforcement perspective, News 6 Traffic Safety Expert Trooper Steve Montiero explained what to do during a traffic stop.
“Be calm, be patient, wait for the officer to come to you, and do not get out of your car unless you are told to do so,” he said. “Once you’ve come to a stop, place your car in park, roll all windows down (if it is not raining), turn all interior lights on (during dark hours), activate your hazard lights and place your hands on your steering wheel and simply wait.”
He advised against taking off your seat belt or making any sudden movements that could make it appear as though you’re reaching for something. While some drivers may want to have their license and registration ready, Montiero suggested waiting to grab them until instructed to do so.
“You do not need to have this ready. Not having it ready for the officer prevents you from moving around prior to the officer approaching you and allows you to properly communicate with the officer if you need to inform them of anything before reaching anywhere,” he said.
What not to do
Knowing what not to do when interacting with officers is just as important as knowing what to do.
Keith offered a list of things to avoid during police encounters:
- Don’t resist arrest.
- Don’t assault the officer.
- Don’t reach into your pockets.
- Don’t empty your pockets voluntarily.
- Don’t run toward or away from the officer.
- Don’t give a statement without a lawyer present, even if you’re innocent.
- Don’t say anything other than your name and address during a traffic stop and only provide those when asked.
- Don’t discuss your immigration status but if you do have immigration documents, you can show them.
The rules of stop and frisk
While the terms “stop” and “frisk” are often used together, Keith said they’re actually two separate things and there are different standards that need to be met for each one.
“In order for you to be stopped legally, the officer needs to have reasonable articulable suspicion, RAS, that you are either engaged in a crime, have just committed a crime or about to commit a crime. And it needs to be specific, it has to be more than a mere hunch,” Keith said.
Those reasons could include being in a high-crime area, running away from a scene or looking like you’re casing a building.
The standard to frisk, or pat down, someone is higher.
“In order to frisk someone you need reasonable articulable suspicion that that person is armed and dangerous, is armed with a weapon. So when they stop you, they do not have automatic grounds to frisk you unless there’s a reason to believe that you have a weapon, OK, an articulable reason beyond you look suspicious,” Keith said.
An officer can only pat the outside of your clothes with a flat hand during a frisk.
“It does not give officers the right to manipulate your pockets to determine if there is something inside or to look inside them before they feel something that could reasonably be a weapon,” Keith said.
Under the plain feel doctrine, an officer can go into your pockets or check further if they have reason to believe the person has a weapon, narcotics or something else illegal based on what they felt during the pat down.
Is it enough?
Keith said while knowing your rights is essential, there are times when it may not be enough, especially when there are some officers who choose to violate those rights.
“Civilians are expected to remain perfectly calm while officers are allowed to be scared and react and fear for their lives. And that’s an unfair reality that we live in,” Keith said. “I never want to teach someone their rights and try to act like we don’t live in a reality where racism is prevalent and that it does show up in policing, right? The key things to know though, are that if you know your rights, you are empowered, no one can take the knowledge from you.”
She said she hopes to see that change one day.
“The reality is knowing your rights is super important, but we shouldn’t have to live like this and it’s possible for us to imagine a world where we don’t have to,” Keith said. “The reality is that in many jurisdictions around our country, we spend more on policing than we spend on public health and education. So why don’t we think of a different way to live? One where we divest from policing and the carceral system and invest in communities and public safety solutions that actually work and don’t over criminalize people of color?”
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