How to Survive the Police STAFF PICK

Theodore B Godfrey

Written by

Criminal Defense Attorney

Contributor Level 13

Posted over 5 years ago. 11 helpful votes



Know Your Officer

Whether it's a stop-and-frisk, a traffic stop or "Avon calling" - an FBI term for blasting your front door down with a shotgun and entering through the debris - you need to remember that the officer's number one concern is almost always going to be safety - his/hers, his/her fellow officers', witnesses' and ideally yours also. Police are in the safety and order business; accordingly, when they close a door, lock a pair of handcuffs, seat a suspect on a curb or in the back of a vehicle, it's to exercise control. There are a few naturally sadistic officers, lawyers, deli shop owners, etc., in existence, but in general police want situations CONTROLLED more than they want to show off, inflict truly random brutality, mock people, etc. With younger, less experienced officers this is particularly true. In sum, the police are generally neither saints nor devils, but "controllers."


Obey All Physical Commands

When an officer tells you to sit, be silent, walk, stand, touch your nose or get out of the vehicle, do it immediately and calmly as instructed. Do not challenge the officer's physical commands, mock them, engage in philosophical argument, tell him to go bother real criminals, cite constitutional principles, etc. If an officer tells you to sit in the back seat of your car, plant your rear end there. Why should you obey? Because this enables the officer to establish physical control without resorting to violence, which is what police are trained to use when needed to establish physical control. Only if you are at risk of severe harm by obeying the police should you even consider disobeying a cop (e.g. you are choking, you need diabetes medicine or the like.) In sum: avoid dying by doing what you are told.


Know Your Right to Remain Silent - And Its Limits

You do have the right to remain silent in the context of CUSTODIAL INTERROGATION by police, which often does not occur. You have the right to be advised of your right to remain silent if, and only if, you are going to be subjected to custodial interrogation. What's custodial interrogation? It's when they are asking you questions beyond extremely basic ID information (your name, your address, your ID for you and your vehicles) and you are not free to leave. Some people believe that the police don't have the right to ask you for your Social Security number, based on some provisions in the Social Security Act. In my view, this is a murky area of law. However, if you don't give it when requested, your likelihood of remaining in jail longer increases until you get a hearing before a judge. I would probably advise a client to give that number on request, but request POLITELY not to have it appear on documents or said out loud, to avoid identity theft issues.


Suicide By Cop and How to Prevent It

If you aggress upon a law enforcement officer during the course of a stop, you will get battered pretty harshly. If you make sudden moves, appear to be escaping, start reaching without notice into bags or glove compartments, turn around and walk away from an officer, disobey an instruction to stay seated, curse the officer, challenge the officer on the law, you stand an excellent chance of catching not only a disorderly conduct charge or its local equivalent but of getting beaten, scraped up, abused, brutalized or worse. Again, under the theory that officers desperately want CONTROL and will oppose any threat to that control through the violence that they learn how to inflict at the police academy, by making a headlong assault on their CONTROL you may in some cases risk maiming or even death in an extreme case.


Safe Things to Discuss with Police - Do Not Exist

There are no safe topics to discuss with police other than your precise identity. Do not ask what your charges are, what the probable cause is, the legal theories of the arrest or citation, etc. If you do these stupid moves, you will damage your case. Shut your mouth and say nothing, other than your name, address and date of birth, your driver's license information if you are a driver and, if pressed only, your social security number. Otherwise, it would be legally better for you to staple your top lip to your bottom lip, and go to the emergency room to have the staple removed when you are released. Chatter and asking questions is for your lawyer at trial four months later. In my experience, suburban Euro-Americans of moderate income have the most severe difficulty accepting this advice, for some reason. Echoing the catchphrase, it must be a "white thing." In sum, discuss nothing other than your identification. Not even Britney Spears, the octuplets lady nor the weather.


How to Use Your "Free Phone Call"

You should get a free phone call if you have been arrested. Sometimes you might get more than one, sometimes you won't get one for a LONG time; that's life. If you can call out, call someone who can deliver a vehicle and bail money, if needed. Do NOT discuss the merits of your case on your phone call, why you are innocent, how unhappy you are at an unjust universe that permits arrests of nice people. Those are legal and existential questions for your lawyer and if applicable your clergy or therapist - later. Accordingly, you should call the most reliable, action-oriented person you know, ideally someone with a car and cash to get you a) out (if bail needed), b) home, if you may leave and c) an attorney and/or bailbondsman immediately if you are going to be held on no bond or a large bond. In sum, call the most effective and cash-loose friend you have to get you out, home and represented if needed.


When Pulled Over

If you are pulled over, pull over safely and in an orderly manner. Tell your passengers to remain silent and calm. Do NOT reach for your glove compartment yet. When the officer approaches the vehicle and asks for license and registration, ASK the officer if you may reach into your pocket/purse/glove compartment to retrieve the documents. When you get the "yes", do so slowly but deliberately. Try to reach in with two fingers daintily rather than slamming your ham-hand in there as if you were grabbing a 2-pound handgun, rather than a 1 gram document. When asked whether you "knew" you were speeding/tailgating, say "Sir/Madam, I am not so sure, but I mean that respectfully." Do not admit, and do not argue. Be polite, fully respectful, but not admitting. If you are allowed to leave, leave slowly and carefully re-enter traffic. If asked to sign, sign the citation; you may be arrested if you don't and it's not an admission. In sum, be polite, respectful, safe and admit nothing.


When Pulled Over - DWI Edition

State laws about "implied consent" to take a DWI Breathylyzer Test on the side of the road, or in a station house, vary. I cannot give you advice on that. But if you take the test on the side of the road, be safe, avoid oncoming traffic and make no sudden moves. After all, this is "how to survive the police" not "how to beat the DWI." In some states, a defendant can call a lawyer from the police station before deciding whether to take the breath test, but you may not be advised of that right. But again, not dying is more important. In sum, stay alive and talk to your lawyer at the first opportunity.


If You Suffer Police Brutality

If you are facing police violence, the correct response is to try to minimize that violence, and sue later if at all. Police brutality is a horrible reality in many police forces, unfortunately. But the goal is to survive. Do not strike back unless you are in immediate danger of being killed or severely beaten/raped by the cop. If you strike back, you should do so with the aim of disabling your life-threatening attacker. Do not strike a cop unless it is to stop deadly force. If you are being handled slightly roughly, go slightly limp and ask the officer "Please be gentle, I am not resisting, I wish to cooperate." Sometimes the officer is simply operating under adrenaline, a polite reminder will calm him down. State that you have disabilities if that's the case, especially if they affect you on the scene. Don't argue; that's for your civil suit later, which you should NOT discuss with the cop. In sum: mitigate rough handling & fight to save your life.


Why I Take This Tone As An Attorney

Some people will be offended by my approach here. They believe in a world where police do not use violence except with perfect restraint and judgment. Police are human, human beings make mistakes. Police carry firearms and are trained not on constitutional law, but on using force to subdue large armed violent male assailants. That means that the mistakes that police make will sometimes be violent mistakes. Calm, orderly, risk-averse behavior by suspects/arrestees/pedestrians, etc., lowers the likelihood of a violent, even lethal mistake in the split second that a police officer has to make a judgment call. In my experience, police are quite grateful for orderly, respectful compliance, and often reward it with exceptional accommodation. They are often more apprehensive of you (your gun, your HIV status, the hypodermic needle in your purse than vice versa.) In sum, this is reality and I want you not to get hurt, maimed or killed by police (or anyone else.)

Additional Resources

Below you'll find an excellent post from Seneca Doane on how and how not to interact with the police and their capacity to hurt, maim or kill you in a tense confrontation.

Seneca Doane Article

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