What To Do If You’re Stopped By The Police

What to do if you're stopped

We’ve all experienced that moment of anxiety and apprehension when we look in our rear view mirrors and see a police car following closely behind. The sweating. The knot in the stomach. Not to mention the “what did I do’s” flashing though your mind like a slide slow on speed. Oh no, did I say speed? How fast was I going? They don’t give tickets for twenty miles-per-hour over the limit, do they?

You glance in the mirror again.

No matter how fast or how slow you go, it’s there, in stealth mode, with headlights glowing like the eyes of a demon. The driver’s monster-size dark silhouette sits unwavering behind the wheel. You can’t see them, but you know the driver-creature’s eyes have met yours. It knows, and you know it knows. It has probed deep into your soul, the place where you keep all your dark secrets. Yes, it knows what what you’ve done and what you’re thinking. It knows you rolled through that intersection, brazenly ignoring the stop sign. And it knows about the day when the time had run out on the parking meter, but you threw caution to the wind and left your car there for ten extra minutes, slapping Big Brother in the face with your devil-may-care attitude. But you knew it is was only a matter of time.

Yes, IT is coming for you…

Okay, that’s a little overboard, but I think the feelings we get when we see a police car in our rear view mirrors are pretty darn intense. And all that intensity, anxiety, and trepidation often leads to trouble in the form of saying too much and doing all the wrong things at all the wrong times, especially when around persons of authority. And, no matter how calm and cool you think you are, this tongue-tangling often occurs when approached by police officers…even when we’ve done absolutely nothing wrong.

So what should you say when approached by a police officer? Or, what shouldn’t you say?

Well, let’s start with a few basics. First of all, if the officer is aiming a .12 gauge at you like Officer Crawford in the top photo, well, you should definitely obey any and all of his commands. That is not the time to argue.

However, under normal circumstances, if you are stopped by the police you should be aware of:

1. Body language/mannerisms. It’s a good idea to not make any threatening gestures, like suddenly reaching into your pockets or suddenly placing a hand behind your back, unless you’ve been ordered to do so by the officer. Let’s face it, if you’re at the point when the officer has asked you to place your hands behind your back, most of what follows is moot.

2. What you say and how you say it. Arguing with the officer will earn you no favors. He/she wants the incident to be over and done as quickly and easily as possible. They don’t want to get hurt, nor do they want to hurt you. However, arguing automatically brings about a hostile atmosphere, and that puts the officer on guard. Therefore, simple acts that normally wouldn’t seem harmful suddenly become potential threats in the eyes of the officer. Besides, anything you say can and WILL be used against you in a…yada, yada, yada…

Also, asking to see the officer’s supervisor is a silly thing to say while you’re arguing with the officer because , if you’ve been hostile and combative you’re probably a matter of seconds away from meeting the supervisor and the four or five other officers who’re on the way to help arrest you.

3. Your hands. Keep them to yourself. The officer does not know you or what your intentions are toward him. Do NOT touch the officer. Do not pretend you’re going to touch the officer.

4. When operating a motor vehicle. You ARE required to present your driver’s license and registration when asked. By the way, if you are arrested/detained, you are required, by law, to give the officer your correct name. Failure to do so could result in an additional charge against you.

5. You do not have to give permission to search you or your property.

6. You should not physically resist a pat-down search. If you think the officer is overstepping his bounds then file a complaint with his supervisor at the police station.

7. You can be arrested if you don’t sign a traffic ticket. Your signature on the summons is like a bond, and the officer is allowing you to go free if you sign promising to appear in court on the date designated on the ticket. By not signing, the officer has no choice but to think you’re refusing to appear in court. Next up…handcuffs. Remember, driving is a privilege, not a right.

8. If you are arrested and you ask for an attorney, that does not mean that a lawyer will drop what she’s doing and immediately drive over to the jail. It might be several hours, or even days, before you see a lawyer.

9. You will get a phone call (after arrest) but that doesn’t mean you’ll get to make that call the second you hit the jail floor. Booking and processing will probably be completed before you’re allowed to make the call. Sometimes, it’s hours before an officer has the time to get you to a phone. They have many other things going on, and bringing a telephone to a screaming, angry, blubbering drunk is not high on the to-do list.

By the way, it is not a constitutional right to make a cellphone call during your arrest. You’ll have to wait to call your mom, brother, father, sister, brother, Auntie Sue.

10. Use your common sense. And for goodness sake, while an officer is placed cuffs around your wrists don’t quote law and police procedure based on what you’ve seen on TV. Those made-for-your-viewing-pleasure scripted lines are rarely accurate. Besides, at that point the officer isn’t listening to you anyway. Instead, they’re concentrating on getting you to the jail or police department without either of you getting harmed. That’s the goal.

Remember, if you resist an arrest the officer is permitted to meet that resistance with whatever legal means it takes to overcome it. They can’t simply let people go because a suspect suddenly decides they don’t want to be arrested.

Finally, do not operate a riding lawnmower on the roadway, especially while drinking alcohol.


17 replies
  1. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    Steven. I have a wonderful idea. Why don’t you attend the Writers’ Police Academy so you can see for yourself exactly what police officers do and why they do it? It think it might be an eye-opener for you (it normally has that effect on people). And it would certainly go a long way toward helping you see this from “the other side,” because it’s sort of obvious that you, along with tons of other citizens, simply don’t understand, no matter how much explaining I, or anyone else offers. And, unfortunately, most people never will because they’re coming at it with an “I hate everything the police do/the police are always wrong/my rights are being violated attitude.

    I certainly do appreciate the fact that you’re willing to ask questions and try to learn, even if you don’t agree. Most people aren’t. For them, it’s either my way or you’re wrong.

    By the way, that 2% you mentioned…well, that’s a good thing. It shows the program is working, because a while back that number would have been much larger (in high-crime areas). See, the idea is to reduce the number of guns, not increase the number found. Remember, though, officers cannot stop someone because they “think” he may have a gun. There must be facts to support the stop.

  2. Steven T.
    Steven T. says:

    I most likely do have blinders on. But, in my defense, the police in NYC don’t work extra hard to make their motives clear. The kid that gets stopped and frisked never, ever gets told why. Cops don’t say “I’m stopping you today because we’ve had a report of gun violence and a person fitting your description was involved.” Cops don’t say to teens “I need you to take your hands out of your pocket because I need to be sure you’re not armed.” And every teenager knows (at least in my neighborhood) that asking a policeman why a search is being conducted is understood as a request to be arrested and taken to a precinct, etc. Full disclosure needs to be a part of every stop.

    I still say there has to be a way to better train officers so when they say “I think this young man might have a gun” they’re actually right more than 2% of the time.

    And if they’re actively seeking thugs to harrass (which I would wholeheartedly applaud) even I can tell them what street corner to find them on, and I haven’t lived there in years.

  3. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    Steven, Steven, Steven. Is it possible that you’re looking at this with blinders on? Police officers don’t know every single person by name, nor do they know a person’s criminal history simply by looking at a face.

    The area where all this was taking place…was it in an area where crime had occurred on a regular basis? Had there ever been trouble with a weapon in the neighborhood schools? Trouble with truancy so kids could hang out? If so, then, although maybe a bit overboard, the stops are legal and a proactive means of preventing weapons from finding their way into schools. Although, if the backpack searches occurred without permission…well, I can’t speak to it without having seen it for myself. Not that I’m doubting you, I’m not. It’s just that I’ve learned over the years to not voice an opinion without having been an eyewitness.

    Don’t feel alone, even I’ve been stopped and frisked while I was walking in my own neighborhood late a night. An older white guy wearing a hoodie. So no racial profiling. Both officers were white too. Not pleasant, but it is what it is.

    The police wouldn’t have to resort to tactics such as stop and frisk if there weren’t so many murders, assaults, rapes, shooting, stabbings, and robberies.

    Personally, I’d take the searches any day over a bullet to the brain.

    By the way, school officials, citizens, etc., often call the police to ask that this sort of thing take place due to something they’ve seen take place. And, the public is not always aware of those situations, and the police take the blame to protect the caller.

  4. Steven T.
    Steven T. says:

    The problem is that they’re NOT stopping thugs. They’re stopping young men of color in bad neighborhoods. Pretty much, they’re stopping every young man who lives in a bad neighborhood. When I lived there, I knew guys who were stopped and frisked and O regularly saw how it was conducted. I can tell you as an eyewitness that the procedure you describe and what actually used to happen were night and day – I’ve seen cops put out a hand and stop a guy as he walked peaceably and start patting while asking questions: “What’s your name? What school do you go to? Why aren’t you in class? Are you sure of the school? I think you belong in class, open your bag and show me your class schedule…” While the bag is open the police riffle through it. Kid shows his schedule. “Okay, keep going, you’re going to be late.” Broad daylight and with regularity. I assume this type of stop and frisk never even gets reported. And the same kid could get braced a dozen times a year. I’m sure each encounter helps make him more and more respectful of police and the work they do…

    Anyway, didn’t want to hijack the blog, but this policy was one of the (many) reasons I moved out of New York. I was never stopped, but I worked in a neighborhood where it happened everyday, and it made me lower my head and avert my eyes every time I passed by a cop. I honestly didn’t know how I would react if a cop tried to stop me.

  5. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    Chris – I seriously doubt he was fishing for a bribe. Many officers simply don’t like writing tickets because it’s actually a lot of work for them – paperwork, having to go to court, often on their days off, etc. I’d be more inclined to believe that he was waiting to hear a legitimate excuse so he could let you go on your way with nothing more than a warning. Besides, it’s up to the individual officer whether or not to issue a summons, so the “if’s could have been his way of making a decision – “Do I. or don’t I” write the ticket?

    Oh, yes, bribing an officer is a serious offense. Don’t you watch the Andy Griffith Show? Why, Andy, as Justice of the Peace, once fined someone ten whole dollars for trying to bribe him.

  6. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    Larry, I’m not sure how the officer could intentionally bust innocent kids. Either the green leafy stuff is pot, or not. It would have to be tested in a laboratory in order for the case to make it to court. Besides, there are field test kits available to all officers, and, if a police officer doesn’t know what regularly used/abused drugs look and smell like, he shouldn’t be making those kinds of stops. And, he wouldn’t be a cop for very long if he habitually arrested innocent people.

    Steven – I’m not sure you’re getting my point. The idea of the stop and frisk is to locate and remove weapons from the hands (pockets) of bad guys. If the people they’re stopping and searching are the usual thugs who normally carry weapons, but the police are now not finding weapons on these guys, well, it proves that the stop and frisk has been a fantastic proactive tool. The police have succeeded in keeping at least (using your numbers) 95 or 96 guns out of the pockets of the bad guys who hang out in that particular area.

  7. Chris Bailey
    Chris Bailey says:

    Hi, Lee. I saw the blue lights behind me not long ago. I knew I wasn’t speeding. I pulled over into the nearest safe spot, and got out my license and registration. The officer informed me that I was driving with an expired tag. Oops. This happened to be in a resort community. The officer asked me if I would be coming back to the coast, and told me that, if he wrote me a ticket, I could bring back the proof that I’d renewed and pay court courts. He said that if he wrote me a ticket, it would still cost a lot, because court costs are high. He used the if word again in some other explanatory phrase. All I thought at the time (but didn’t say) was, if you are going to write a ticket, then get on with it. I have a dog and a cat in the car.

    I said nothing more than, “Yes, sir,” to keep the stop as brief as possible. Fifteen miles down the road, I thought, with all that IF phrasing–was he trying to get me to offer him some cash to let me go? And wouldn’t bribing a police officer be a more serious crime?

    Oh, and “court costs” amounted to $160.

  8. Larry Moniz
    Larry Moniz says:

    Lee, many years ago I was unlucky enough to share the front seat of a patrol car with a young cop who was short on brains, long on building a great arrest record and very short on police ethics. He would stop and harass teens, claimed he smelled marijuana and toss a car for more than an hour. Anything that was green and leafy or round like a peppercorn would result in a (often innocent) kid being busted. Don’t know what ever happened to him as to his career, but I do know he was in the process of building a brand new house and, when near completion, it mysteriously burned down one night. Not a single brother cop had any sympathy.

  9. Steven T.
    Steven T. says:

    Ah, thank you for the answer. I would be inclined, of course, to leave the protest for another day.

    My numbers were wrong. The NYC stop and frisk policy is a raging success. The stats actually show that contraband of any kind turns up in less than 5% of encounters. Weapons show up less than 2% of the time. Hard for me to see 600,000 encounters every year that turn up nothing actionable as a success. Putting race entirely to one side, if you tell me an officer believes he has good reason to stop and frisk 100 people but only finds contraband of any kind on 4 or 5, I would begin to suspect he doesn’t know how to identify a “good reason to stop and frisk.” There has got to be a better way to figure out who needs to be stopped and who doesn’t because, frankly, I’m not seeing how the numbers are better than simply stopping the first 100 people you see. Even a blind squirrel, etc.

  10. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    I really can’t speak for what takes place in NYC, but I will say this…if police anywhere are not finding weapons during stop and frisks at a rate of 75% of the time, then their proactive approaches toward eliminating weapons on the street is a success, not a failure.

    Again, I can’t speak for NYC, but I can speak from past experiences. You know, what I’m about to say will not please a lot of people, and I honestly don’t want to offend anyone, but I do hope this makes sense. Please take a moment to think about it before…well, let’s just dive right in.

    The majority of “street-sweep-type” operations, where officers flood a high-crime area hoping to reduce criminal activity, are the areas where numerous stop and frisks take place. Why? Because high-crime areas = more illegal weapons. Really, they do.

    Now, many high-crime areas of cities, towns, and counties just happen to be where a lot of minorities reside. Why is that? Because many minorities are quite often, for whatever reason(s), living in a manner that could be considered as below the middle class income level. And those are the people who are struggling to survive, and the struggle is ongoing, an unfortunate way of life. They’re also the people who often turn to drugs as a means of escape, or as a means of earning money (doesn’t make it right, but people have to eat). Gangs often rule these areas, making it doubly hard to live a normal life there. Is that right, or fair? One thing I know for sure…it is what it is.

    Again, I can’t speak for NYC, but I can speak with some authority to other cities where I’ve lived and worked. Take Richmond, Va., for example. There are many well-to-do neighborhoods there, and many are made up of people of various races, but there is virtually no crime there to speak of. So it’s obvious that crime is not race specific or race driven. If a crime does take place in the racially diverse and affluent neighborhoods, it’s usually committed by someone from the outside, not a resident.

    So it goes without saying that officers surely wouldn’t waste valuable time and resources hanging out in a near crime-free area, as opposed to neighborhoods where drugs, gangs, guns, and murder are part of the near daily routine. It’s sort of like fishing. You don’t go to a cornfield to catch trout.

    You don’t have to take my word for any of this, not at all. To verify what I’ve written all one would need to do is check the crime stats for your city.

    Keep in mind, though, that officers don’t merely walk up to random people, push them against a wall, and then start patting them down without word or warning. There’s always an initial interaction/conversation/questioning. Unless, of course, the officer saw the person shove a weapon into his pocket.

    Anyway, yes, police may stop/detain someone for a brief investigation, even if there’s not enough evidence to arrest him. And, yes, you/we/I must submit to a Terry Stop pat-down search for weapons (and I beg each and every one of you to NOT base what you think you know about the law on what you’ve seen on TV shows or in mystery novels).

    But, officers must follow a few basic rules when conducting these investigative stops, and those rules are:

    The officer conducting the search must identify himself as a police officer if not in uniform.

    He must have knowledge of facts that lead him to believe that you/we/I are involved in illegal activity.

    Our answers to the officer’s questions do not relieve him of his suspicions.

    If we don’t believe the stop was based on the law I stated above, well, the place to argue the case is in the police station during a civilized meeting with supervisors, or in court with an attorney representing the citizen, but definitely not on the street.

    By the way, police officers are quite well-trained and well-versed in the area of Terry Stops. I think a lot of what people perceive as improper may very well be based on what they’ve seen on TV shows, read on the internet, or, they simply don’t like not having their way. And yes, I’m basing this on “hands-on” experience. I’ve never seen a police officer abuse the stop and frisk law. Not even once. And, believe me, I know some pretty goofy police officers.

  11. Steven T.
    Steven T. says:

    What the law or Supreme Court says and what actually happens may be different I think. In NYC, the Stop and Frisk is not a random stop – More than 80% of those stopped are minorities and about 75% are told to go on their way as they don’t have anything illegal on them. If this 75% failure rate happened one year, I’d expect that the police would be better trained and the failure rate would go down in the second, third, fourth, seventh or tenth year. Nope.

    In any event, now judges are throwing out cases even when the police find illegal handguns. Not the best solution, but I’m not sure what else can be done.

    My original question was about whether a citizen needs to submit to a search if they’re not being placed under arrest and they’re not told why they’re being searched?

  12. Dave Swords
    Dave Swords says:

    Taken from the US Commission on civil rights website:

    “Once such a stop has been made, New York law authorizes a frisk of the person only if the officer “reasonably suspects that he is in danger of physical injury.”[40] These provisions form the core of what is popularly referred to as New York’s “Stop and Frisk Act.”

    The so called “Stop and Frisk” is not a “random” stop, as opponents might have people believe

  13. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    NYC’s policy cannot supersede a Supreme Court ruling. In other words, they must follow what I outlined above – they must have facts to support the Terry Stop. But New York is not alone. Every single police officer in the U.S. can and does use the Terry Stop (stop and frisk) to search someone they believe is illegally concealing a weapon. New York just happens to be in the limelight at the moment, unless they’re doing something I’m not aware of. But what I’ve read and seen on the news about the stops they’re conducting is perfectly legal. They cannot, however, simply stop anyone and everyone they choose just for the heck of it. Instead, they must, by law, follow the Terry v. Ohio ruling.

  14. Steven T.
    Steven T. says:

    NYC has a notorious Stop and Frisk policy – the police stop you with no probable cause and frisk you and if they find nothing on you, you’re free to go. Can a citizen refuse to be frisked and expect to be allowed to go on their way? Or should they expect to be arrested if they refuse what I think is a bad search?

  15. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    What’s your question, Steven?

    A police officer may stop and frisk a person (Terry v. Ohio) if they have knowledge of facts that leads them to believe that the person they’ve stopped is armed and/or otherwise dangerous to the officer or other people. However, the search may only be a “pat-down-type search” of the outer clothing only, UNLESS the officer conducting the search detects something that “feels” like a weapon. At that time, the officer may reach into pockets, etc., to retrieve the weapon(s).

    There are other factors that could come into play, but that’s that the basics.

  16. Helen Chapman
    Helen Chapman says:

    The jaywalker was in the wrong. If the officer is in error, the place to bring it up is in the courtroom, not on the street. He resisted arrest [that would not have been necessary had he simply followed directly]. The fact that they refused to present identity following a legitimate request by an officer then would seem to give the officer probable cause for a search.

    I wanted him to arrest that mouth woman, but that’s just because I’m vindictive, and tired of listening to her. If she didn’t know her date of birth, she could be a danger to herself or others and could have been taken into “protective custody”.

Comments are closed.