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Know Your Rights If You Get Arrested

This article originally appeared on Teen Vogue.

Read the news on any given day and you’re likely to read about various arrests — some that may seem justified and others that don't. As nice as it may be to think, “I don’t break any laws; I don’t need to worry about being arrested,” the possibility exists that you could face arrest even if you didn’t commit a crime, for a crime you didn’t know you committed (like standing in the street during a sidewalk-only protest), or for a crime that doesn’t seem worthy of arrest (like peacefully protesting). For black people, the risk is even higher.

Being arrested isn't ideal — but there’s definitely nothing wrong with being prepared for such a circumstance, just in case. That starts with knowing your rights and how best to exercise them. So we talked with some legal and civil rights experts to find out just what you should do if you ever hear this: “You’re under arrest.”

Don’t consent to a search.

Before we even talk about what to do after you’re arrested, it’s a good idea to have a clear concept of what you should do if you’re approached by police. First and foremost, Lee Rowland, senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, tells Teen Vogue that it’s important to stay calm and stay put, even if you’re innocent. Beyond that, Rowland says it’s OK to calmly ask, "Am I free to go?" "[That] is the way to ask a police officer if you have a legal duty to stay there, because you are under arrest and thus in trouble if you . . . leave that area,” she says. “If the police officer says, ‘yes,’ you are free to go, and [you] should do so.”

If an officer asks to search you, your belongings, or your space, it’s within your rights to politely decline. “Police generally only ask for your consent when they do not have the legal right to engage in a search without your consent,” Rowland says. “Particularly in high-stress situations, it’s easy to think that a question might be a demand. But it’s really important to keep your cool and . . . remember that if a police officer is asking your permission, he or she needs that permission to search you.”

That said, be sure to leave the attitude behind. “It’s always good to de-escalate a situation and to remain calm and polite,” Rowland says. She recommends using the simple phrase, “I politely decline to consent to a search,” which, she says, “can be the difference between a sustained encounter with law enforcement and being able to walk away from a situation in which you are not under arrest.”

Don’t resist.

If you are put under arrest, whatever the circumstances and whether or not you’re innocent, the most important thing to remember is not to fight the officer who is detaining you. “Never resist arrest,” David M. Shapiro, clinical assistant professor of law and director of appellate litigation for the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern University, tells Teen Vogue. “It could result in a far more serious charge.”

Resisting arrest could also lead to your getting hurt. “Anything that is unfair, unjust, or unlawful about that arrest will have to be determined in court,” Jeffery Robinson, ACLU deputy legal director and director of the Trone Center for Justice and Equality, tells Teen Vogue. “The moment the police officer says you are under arrest, he or she is indicating that they are going to take you into custody — and if you resist, they’re the ones with the weapons, they’re the ones with the hand-to-hand combat training and . . . you’re likely to get injured. So it doesn’t matter if you’re innocent; [it] doesn’t matter if you’re being arrested unfairly; it doesn't matter if they're deliberately arresting you for something that they know you didn’t do. Don’t resist — and that is less legal advice and more survival advice.”

And be sure to keep your hands visible at all times. “Do not reach into your pocket, the glove compartment, etc., unless instructed to do so,” Shapiro says. “The officer may worry you are reaching for a weapon and shoot you. Do not approach the officer unless instructed to do so.”

Once arrested, stay silent, except to ask for a lawyer.

Once you’ve been put under arrest, the best thing you can do is exercise your right to remain silent, with few exceptions. Tell the officer your name if it’s asked of you and, Shapiro notes, be honest — falsifying your name is illegal. If you’re booked into jail, he says to answer questions about your height and weight, and whether or not you’ve been incarcerated before. You can ask if you’re allowed to make a phone call. And you can (and should) ask to speak to a lawyer (and, if you’re a minor, to your parents). Robinson suggests saying something simple, such as, “Officer, I don’t want to talk about anything with you. I would like to have a lawyer,” or, “I don’t want to talk. Please let me know how I can get a lawyer as quickly as possible.”

That advice is the same whether you’re innocent or not and whether a crime is something “big” or something “small" — like the aforementioned standing in the street during a sidewalk-only protest or accidentally taking a candy bar from a store. “There is no ‘technically,’” Robinson says. “You either committed a crime or you didn’t.”

And though you may think your best course of action is to explain your innocence or your mistake, that can make things much worse. “If you are being placed under arrest, it means the cop has already decided that you’ve done something wrong,” Robinson says. “You are not [going to] talk your way out of this. Even if the cop says, ‘Did you take this candy bar out of the store?’ and you say . . . ‘I took it out of the store; I didn’t realize [and] I forgot I had put it in my basket' . . . now you’ve made a statement [confessing] and you’re in trouble.”

Don’t just resist the urge to make a formal statement; resist talking at all. “Don't talk to police officers,” Shapiro says. “Though you have a right to stop talking at any time, it can be hard psychologically to stop talking once you start. So don't start.” And that goes for talking to others, too. “While in jail, remember that everything you say, except to your lawyer, can be monitored and recorded,” he says. “If you confess guilt in a letter home, or on the phone to your parents, or even to a fellow detainee at the jail, it may come back to incriminate you at trial.

Bottom line: Even if you have to wait a long time (possibly overnight) to speak with a lawyer, it’s worth it compared with making a statement that could land you a conviction. “The best way to make sure that all your rights are protected and that you will get the best advice as to how to resolve the situation — even if you did something wrong and you [want to] take responsibility for it — [is to] talk to a lawyer and figure out the best way to do that,” Robinson says.

Know that you can get a lawyer, even if you don’t already have one.

Don’t have a lawyer on speed dial? That doesn’t mean you can’t get one. Ask the officers how you can get in touch with a lawyer. If you can’t afford one, let them know that and ask for one to be provided. “Many, many people in America are eligible for public defenders . . . because hiring a lawyer is very expensive,” Robinson says. “The fact that you may have a job doesn’t mean that you are not eligible for a public defender.” So who is eligible? The rules vary by state, but Robinson says they won’t be looking at your bank statements. Rather, someone may interview you and ask you some questions about your financial circumstances — or, Shapiro notes, it could be a written questionnaire — and your answers will help them determine if you’re eligible for public defense. Make sure you’re honest. “In most states it’s a crime if you lie about your financial circumstances,” Robinson says.

If it’s determined that you don’t qualify for a lawyer paid for by the state, Shapiro recommends asking the federal public defender’s office for an attorney recommendation. “Even if you are arrested on a state charge, it is generally a better idea to ask for a recommendation from the federal public defender’s office as opposed to the state public defender’s office,” he says.

Be careful with your trust.

Whether you’ve spoken with your lawyer already or not, you could potentially face pressure from officers to speak to them or even confess. You may be stressed, scared, and tired, but try to keep your wits about you and save your trust for your lawyer. “Many of us have been taught from childhood to view the police as ‘Officer Friendly,’ and we naturally respect them as authority figures,” Shapiro says. “Watch out! There are many good officers who are serious about finding the right person, but also bad officers who entrap innocent people.”

Again, though plenty of officers go about things the proper way, Shapiro warns that there are some who will go so far as to lie to get you to confess. “They may tell you that your friend already confessed and implicated you, even if that’s not true,” he says. “They may tell you that if you confess, they will help you get a short sentence, without really meaning it. They may tell you that you can go home if you confess, even if they are going to lock you right up. Statements like these are usually false, and you should not trust them.”

Meet with your lawyer as soon as you’re released.

If you get released and have a trial date set, meet with your lawyer as soon as possible so he or she can advise you on what to do next. “If there are witnesses . . . get names and addresses and phone numbers and email addresses and contact information to give to the lawyer,” Robinson says. Though it may be tempting to confide in friends or family, he says you should only talk about your case with your lawyer.

Take care of yourself.

Once you’re out of custody and have met with your lawyer, remember to take care of yourself. “Take a shower!” Shapiro says. “And then focus on self-care and engaging your support network. With charges hanging over you, there is a lot of stress and uncertainty ahead. Get prepared for it emotionally.

Keywords: David M. Shapiro, Police

Posted in In the News