5 Things a Police Officer Won’t Tell You
1. “I am not your friend.”
When stopping you for an offense such as a traffic stop, a law enforcement officer goes into criminal investigatory mode. This means he or she is alert and looking for evidence that you may be engaged in criminal activity. The officer does not limit the inquiry to the original reason for the detention – everything is fair game. The officer may peer into your car, ask for consent to search you or your car for contraband, run a warrant check, question you and your passengers separately to see if your stories vary, or even summon a drug-sniffing dog to the scene.
Just remember, the officer is on guard during the stop, and you should be, as well. You may have to assert your right not to cooperate.
2. “I see things through blue-colored glasses.”
An officer is trained to look for and document all the facts that support the criminal investigation. That does not necessarily hold true for facts that tend to undermine the investigation. The officer is building a case for the prosecution and may fail to note or record facts that run contrary to the conclusion that an offense has occurred.
My clients often are shocked by representations made by officers on incident reports. It is a good idea to make your own notes about what happened during the stop, and to do so as soon as practical after your release from jail.
3. “I may not know what I am doing.”
Police officers are human like everyone else, and some learn their craft better than others. Just because your officer sounds or acts authoritative does not mean he or she is conducting a competent investigation. I have observed many a DWI field sobriety test that was incorrectly conducted. I have cringed or laughed out loud at confidently asserted inaccuracies made in offense reports. Such errors can help your defense attorney impeach the officer in court or convince the prosecutor to offer a favorable disposition for your case.
4. “The best thing for you to do? Keep your mouth shut.”
In the early stages of a police encounter or detention, anything you say to the police officer can be used against you in court. The protection against self-incrimination provided by Miranda v. Arizona does not kick in until the officer engages in “custodial interrogation,” which occurs later after your arrest and confinement. But be warned, the officer is not going to inform you of this fact, and will use your words against you in the event of a subsequent prosecution. In a normal traffic stop, it won’t matter; if the detention takes a more serious turn, however, you would be well-advised to politely decline to answer the officer’s questions.
5. “You are well within your rights to refuse to consent to a search of your vehicle or person.”
Your rights under the Fourth Amendment do not disappear when you leave your home. In order to search your person or vehicle during a consensual encounter or traffic detention, an officer either must have probable cause to believe the search will reveal evidence of a crime, or must have your consent. Depending on the situation, the officer may ask to search you or your vehicle without having probable cause. The officer will not tell you that you do not have to consent to this request.
You may and should refuse the search request. If you have nothing to hide, you should not be delayed further or subjected to the indignity of the search. If you do happen to have contraband, it is not your duty to help the officer discover it. Let the officer search at his or her own legal peril. In the absence of probable cause, the seized evidence will not be admissible in court.