Protecting your rights during a police stop

Anybody who has ever watched a crime show on television likely has a basic awareness of Miranda rights. Nearly everyone has seen a show where a police officer informs a suspect of the right to remain silent and to speak with an attorney.

However, this is where most people's knowledge stops. Few Americans fully understand the rights the Constitution affords them during a police encounter. As a result, many people end up saying or doing something that unwittingly implicates them in a crime.

If there is one thing a person should understand about their constitutional rights, it is this: every person in the United States has the right to remain silent during an encounter with law enforcement. This right never expires and it can be invoked at any time, even if a person has already shared some information with the police.

Furthermore, every person has a right to have an attorney present whenever they talk to the police. It is advisable to always invoke this right, even during informal or voluntary police questioning.

It is important to recognize, though, that just because these rights exist doesn't mean that the police will help you protect them. Police may try to convince you to talk by telling you that things will be easier for you if you cooperate. And, contrary to public perception, police do not have to inform you of your rights until several preconditions have been met.

When Miranda warnings apply

Miranda warnings are required to be given before a person is subjected to custodial interrogation. For all practical purposes, this means two things must have happened:

  • The person has been arrested or is otherwise being detained and is not free to leave.
  • The police intend on asking the person questions about his or her involvement in a crime.

Before custodial interrogation begins, police must inform suspects of their right to remain silent, their right to have an attorney present and their right to have an attorney appointed if they cannot afford to hire one themselves. If a suspect requests an attorney, all interrogation must stop immediately and cannot start again until the attorney arrives.

What to do if you are stopped by the police

If you are stopped by the police, do not answer any questions and politely inform the officer that you wish to invoke your right to remain silent. (You do, however, have to tell the officer your real name, and you must show your driver's license during a traffic stop.) Do not consent to a search of your vehicle, home or person.

If you are not being detained, you may end the encounter and leave at any time. If you are unsure about whether you are being detained, ask the officer before you leave.

If you are arrested, reassert your right to remain silent and tell the police you wish to speak with an attorney before asking questions. The attorney will be able to evaluate the circumstances of your arrest to help you decide the best option for moving forward.