Written by attorney James Morris Balagia

How to Act in a Citizen and Police Interaction

Have you ever went onto YouTube and watched videos of police interactions with the general public? Some of these videos are quite good at educating ordinary citizens on their rights with police. Some are, however, dangerous to your freedoms. Even if the guy in the video didn't get arrested, some of the advice given, and the statements made, are bad advice. There are two types of police encounters that I want to talk to you about - when you're in a car, and when you are on foot. Although they have some similarities, there are significant differences that you need to be aware of before you try to stand on your rights during a police encounter. I will talk about when you are in a car today. Tomorrow I will address how you should conduct yourself when you are on foot. As you read these posts it is important for you to remember, however, that I am not giving you legal advice for a particular situation. I am describing the concepts of law and how they are supposed to be applied in general. Every case is different, and one seemingly inconsequential fact can turn a case on its head and land you in deep water, or set you free. Ultimately, it comes down to how the court views the interaction.


The U.S. Constitution guarantees you the right to travel freely across the United States. The government is not supposed to be able to interfere with your travels unless they have specific articulable facts to indicate you have broken a law. Specific articulable facts means that they have to be able to point to information or observations about you that the court believes gave them a reasonable reason to stop and detain you for an investigation. These facts do not have to rise to the level of probable cause, but do have to be more than a hunch or guess. Some commentators have called the reasonable suspicion requirement an educated guess. I don't like that term. Guessing should not be a part of the equation. But, it cannot be strictly a mathematical equation either. If you cover your license plate with something that obscures part of the plate from being clearly seen, have a turn signal, headlight or tail light that is not working, or you fail to use your signals or lights when you are required to do so, and the police notices that, then they have a reasonable suspicion that you have violated a law, and can stop you to further investigate that violation. Their investigation does not, however, have to be restricted strictly to the purpose for which they stopped you.


Once the police stop you they will typically ask you where you are coming from, where you are going to, the names and your relationship to passengers or the vehicle owner, and other questions that on the surface seem innocent enough. Oftentimes they ask these questions is conversational tone while they write out a warning or summons. What is really going on, however, is that the officers are conducting an investigation. It is never a good idea to freely give the police information about you that you are not legally required to give. Prisons and jails are full of people who believed they were simply answering innocent questions by the police, and who thought that nothing they were saying would hurt them. The most dangerous cop on television was Lt. Columbo. He approached his suspect like he knew nothing about anything. He asked questions in a friendly, polite manner. He allowed his suspects to believe they were smarter than him all the way until the time he slapped the cuffs on them. People talked to him because they believed he was friendly, bumbling cop who could not find his way through a maze with a map. Traffic officers are trained to do the same, and if you are not ready for their questions, you are behind the eight ball before you've ever taken a shot. While you are required to give the police officers your driver's license, proof of insurance, and registration when you get stopped, you are not required to answer any questions about where you are coming from or going to, or any other matter. You do not need to get defensive or offended by the officers questions, but you do need to remain firm in your position that your information is your business, not the governments.


Every officer knows that information is the key to an effective investigation. Most crimes are difficult, or impossible, to solve if no one talks. Every sliver of information you provide the police provides them with another question they can ask you. if you tell the officer you are coming from Houston and headed toward Oklahoma City you have given him a huge line of questions to ask you. He can ask you: - Where are you coming from in Houston? - What time did you leave? - Are you meeting someone in OKC? - Do you have family in Houston? - Do you have family in OKC? - Did you grow up in Houston/OKC? - How long will that trip take you? - How long are you going to be there? - Where are you going to stay when you get there? - How much gas money do you expect that trip to cost you? - What are you going to do when you're there? - When are you coming home? - Are you going back to Houston when you leave OKC? - What kind of job do you have that you can take that much time off work? - Is 35 the best route to OKC, or do you know another one? - Do you have a map of how you're going to go? - Do you have a phone number to call when you get there? - What time did you leave Houston? - And, many, many more.

In polite society it would seem impolite to ask such questions of a complete stranger. But, when an officer in full uniform stands outside your car window asking you these questions you begin to feel compelled to answer them. Part of the reason is because the officer is trained to exude Command Presence - the appearance that he is in command of the situation and all persons in the situation. Part of the reason is because you may believe that if you will just answer his questions he will go away and leave you alone. Of course, if you answer his questions he will only have more questions to ask you. And, he will keep asking you until he has developed enough suspicion to search or arrest you, or until he is comfortable that you are not engaged in anything illegal.


The police are only supposed to stop you long enough to conduct the investigation of the reason they stopped you, then either issue you a warning or summons and release you. They can detain you longer, however, if during the stop they develop a reasonable suspicion that another crime is afoot. They develop this suspicion not only through the answers you give, but the manner is which you give the answers. One trick the police love to use is to ask you some of the questions listed above as they issue you a summons or warning, then return to you your driver's license, proof of insurance, and registration. They may even tell you that you are free to go, or may simply say, "Have a great day." They are indicating to you that you are free to go. Usually they will wait for at least a few seconds before they then ask, "Hey, Mr. X, can I talk to you a minute?" Often people will return to where the police officer is standing and will begin answering questions. The officer may ask the same questions as above, or may ask other questions. Almost always, the officer will at some point in this conversation ask you for consent to search your vehicle. He may tell you his department requires him to ask, or he may give some other justification, but the point is he is asking you for your permission to allow him to enter your property and have a look around. It is doubtful he could get a search warrant at this point, but if you give him permission he no longer needs a reasonable suspicion, probable cause or any other justification to search your vehicle.


The officer would have never gotten to Step 2 or 3 if you had not answered any of his questions. You do not have to give him a legal justification for you speeding, explain why your taillight is out, tell him where you are coming from or going to, or any other informationbut the information contained on your driver's license, insurance card, and registration. The military has a familiar saying: KISS - Keep It Simple Stupid! It means, that the simpler something else the less likely you will be to mess it up. The same is true with police encounters. Whether you have something to hide, or you simply do not want to spend an hour on the side of the road answering questions that have nothing to do with the reason you were stopped if you KISS the cop, you will find yourself going home much sooner than you otherwise would.

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