According to the United States Constitution, the police cannot legally stop you without evidence that a crime was or is being committed. That said, they still stop people all the time with little or no evidence of a crime being committed.
In fact, some cops will have been known to intimidate, coerce, lie, and break the law to get what they want. People of color, especially young men, are particularly at risk. They can do everything right and still get stopped (or more accurately, profiled) simply for the way they look.
Regardless of your guilt or innocence, you have certain rights that protect you during police encounters. The following phrases set boundaries on what the police can do—and if the officers overstep those bounds, your utterance of these all-important words will help your lawyer prove in court that the cops acted illegally.
(As a side note: these phrases have been chosen based on their simplicity and common usage. There are a number of ways to verbalize the same meaning (e.g. “Am I free to go?” is the same as “Am I being detained?”)
“Am I free to go?”
The police can only detain you if they have a reasonable suspicion that you are involved in a crime. It does not matter what reasoning you are given for the stop; if you are not free to go, then you are being detained.
The two most common reasons cops detain you are (1) they are writing you a citation, or (2) they want to arrest you but don’t have enough information to do so yet. So while detention stops short of an arrest, it often will lead to one.
Asking if you are free to go clarifies whether or not you are being detained. If the police do not let you go, move on to the next magic phrase.
“I do not consent to being searched.”
Generally, the police need a warrant to search you, or in more narrow circumstances, probable cause (i.e., facts or evidence that would make a reasonable person believe you have committed or will commit a crime). Police are not allowed to just search your person (or your car, house, backpack, etc.) for any reason.
They can, however, pat down the outside of your clothing to make sure you don’t have any weapons. If they continue beyond this, immediately say the magic phrase to establish that you don’t consent to being searched. At this point, the officers may try to establish consent by tricking you or implying that you’ll receive more favorable treatment if you allow the search.
Don’t fall for these ploys—remember, consenting to a search gives the officers permission that did not already exist. If they need to get your permission to search you, then they don’t already have enough on you to establish probable cause; otherwise, they would just go ahead and search you.
If the cops ignore your refusal to consent, do not physically resist their search. You could get injured and be charged with resisting arrest. If there are witnesses, continue loudly repeating the magic phrase.
“I want a lawyer.”
If you are being detained, the police cannot ask you questions without reading you your Miranda rights, which include your right to remain silent (see the next magic phrase), your right to an attorney, and your right to have an attorney appointed if you cannot afford one.
Once you say “I want a lawyer,” the cops are not allowed to continue questioning you. Repeat this request to every officer who tries to interrogate you. Anything you say after invoking this right can be thrown out in court even if you neglect to say “I want to remain silent.”
If you are arrested, hold tight; you have the right to a phone call within a reasonable amount of time after your arrest or booking. And if you cannot get a hold of a lawyer at that point, you will be able to ask for one at your first court date.
“I want to remain silent.”
Whenever the cops ask you anything besides your name and address, it’s legally safest to say “I want to remain silent.” But you have to speak up and affirmatively state this to activate this right.
While the police are legally required to stop asking you questions at this point, they frequently continue to do so. This can be difficult, as the officers tend to use coercive tricks like saying, “If you don’t cooperate by answering my questions, I’ll have no choice but to arrest you.” Keep repeating the magic phrase or just remain silent.
Do not fall for promises of leniency or succumb to aggressive threats. If you do choose to respond to a question, you’ll have to say “I want to remain silent” all over again to halt further questioning.
There is no one size fits all model for interacting with the police—the advice in this article is not directly applicable to every single situation. Different circumstances, such as your age, race, gender, locality, the time of day, and the presence of witnesses, can alter your approach.
But generally, try to remain courteous no matter how much hostility the officer may direct toward you. The goal is to avoid escalation and get out of the situation as quickly as possible. Often the best-case scenario is that you get let go with a warning or a simple citation, while the worst case is that you or someone you know gets hurt.
Finally, remember, the cops do not have the final say—the real fight takes place in the courtroom before the judge and jury. Memorizing and using these magic phrases will help you and your attorney if and when that real battle ensues.