Just Say No . . . to Cops

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Few of us like to interact with cops – like scabies, they are best avoided entirely. But when do you have a choice – and when don’t you have a choice about interacting with a costumed enforcer? When are you legally required to identify yourself? To produce ID? Laws vary, state to state, but here are some general things to know:

The (so-called) “consensual” interaction

This generally applies to pedestrians and so on – people out in public, but not operating a motor vehicle.

A cop may – like anyone else – approach you at any time and ask you questions. He is not required to have “reasonable suspicion” a crime has been committed – much less “probable cause” suggesting that a crime has been committed.

Most people – because they have been taught to defer to people wearing state-issued costumes – will answer a cop’s questions, even though they would rather not – and probably would not have, if the person asking were just an ordinary citizen as opposed to a costumed enforcer. They feelpressured. Some will show their IDs, if asked – and even grant permission to let the cop rifle through their possessions.

Arguably, all of this is less than consensual, real-world-wise, if not legally speaking. Because it can be intimidating to find yourself face to face with one of the state’s costumed (and armed) enforcers. Absent the costume (and the gun) you might be inclined to tell the person to piss off and leave you the hell alone.

However, you are not legally obliged to provide your ID, or even tell the cop your name – much less answer the cop’s questions – if the encounter is “consensual.”

Unless the cop has some legally valid reason for detaining you (more on this in a minute) you have every legal right to simply walk away. And that’s how you determine whether the encounter is, in fact, consensual. By asking him a question: Am I free to go?

The cop will either say yes – or no. If yes, that’s it. Walk away.

If the answer is no, then you are being detained.

Very important: Always ask the question – am I free to go? – and get an answer. Because if you don’t – and just walk away – the cop could claim later on that you “ignored a lawful order” (or “resisted”) and might escalate the situation in a way you will not like.

You want things crystal clear and openly stated – with no room for misinterpretation. If at all possible, turn on a recording device the moment you are faced with a costumed enforcer.

Detention (Terry stop)

This is the step preceding arrest. The cop has (or claims) a “reasonable suspicion” that some specific violation of law has occurred (or is about to occur) and has temporarily detained you for purposes of further investigation. As a practical matter, all traffic stops are Terry stops – named after a landmark Supreme Court case.

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