If you are stopped, questioned, pulled over, or your movement is otherwise restricted by a show of authority (e.g., words, physical force, threat of physical force, or show of badge or gun), I advise you to utter these five magic words. Simply put, if you feel like you’re being detained, ask: “Am I being detained, officer, or am I free to go?” Frankly, I’d be out of business if my clients made a practice of asking this question. Unfortunately, business is as good as ever. Why is that?
I’ve always wondered why people continue to talk to cops, even after they hear this advice, either from friend or lawyer. The fact is, cops are trained to prey on the human condition, or at least one element of it. We grow up being taught to help people when we can, and we learn to trust police officers from kindergarten. Without getting into a stereotype that all cops are bad or untrustworthy (for the record, they are not), it’s just not wise to talk to cops, unless you’re life is in danger. That advice comes from my experience, both professional and personal.
I’ll reiterate, cops are trained to prey on the human condition. They know that we have a subconscious desire to help, and we are (I’ll admit it!) afraid of them. You’ll see I’ve already created an “us v. them” scenario. Well, so be it. They (cops) are, more often than not, not there to help us. What’s worse, their training is intensely focused on gathering information from people not otherwise inclined to give it. So, be prepared for an immediate and rehearsed set of responses to your initial question. For example,
You: “Am I free to go, officer, or am I being detained?”
Cop: “Hey, I’m just trying to get to the bottom of this, ask you a few questions. This is just casual conversation.”
Cop: “Do you have something to hide?”
Another way cops will attempt to curtail your efforts to leave is fear.
You: “Am I free to go?”
Cop: “Look, you’re not a suspect, for now. If you leave, I’ll be forced to take your name and contact information, and I can’t promise you won’t be brought in for questioning.”
The appropriate response remains “Am I being detained?” or “Am I free to go?” Until you get a straight forward response, your status is unclear. Once an officer says you are free to go, however, you may then leave. Otherwise, you are being detained, and you may have the right to an attorney during any further questioning.
It’s hard to stand up to cops. A perfect example of how we all acquiesce to law enforcement authority is when we are pulled over for speeding and answer all of those playbook questions asked by the officer.
Cop: “Do you know why I pulled you over today?”
In some cases, the truthful answer may be actually be an admission of guilt! Stand up to that cop, and tell him or her, “Officer, could you tell me why you pulled me over today?”
If you are pulled over, all that you have to provide the officer is your license, insurance, and registration. You may be asked to exit your vehicle for officer safety reasons, which is likely permissible. However, be sure to bring your keys, wallet, and cell phone with you. Lock your car behind you, and deny consent to search. I go into much more detail on traffic stops in “I Got Pulled Over. Now, What?”
In conclusion, don’t feel embarrassed or scared to assert your rights. If you do, know that it is a common emotional response to these stressful situations. Remember, always ask these questions:
“Am I being detained?”
“Am I free to go?”
I hope this helps! Let me know, if you have any questions.
Not guilty, always.