Being stopped by the police can be a very disturbing and unwelcome experience. Often, a stop by police is conducted on a person who is altogether innocent, but who faces scrutiny by virtue of being in the wrong place at the wrong time or by fitting the description of an offender of a proximal crime. A person can be stopped either in a vehicle or merely walking down a street. The stop might be pursuant to a traffic violation, to investigate a crime that was reported nearby in minutes prior, or to investigate general crime patterns in the area.

At times, innocent people who objected to police detention and investigation have resisted and unlawfully disobeyed police resulting in charges or injury to themselves, police, or both. While any and all professions are prone to having some corrupt individuals who act wrongly, whether doctors, lawyers, teachers, or custodians, the fact remains that the overwhelming majority of police interactions with people are conducted properly and without violating the rights of the citizen being investigated. Despite unfortunate incidents that have occurred in which police violate the rights of citizens, this article focuses only on the lawful use of stops by police.

Recognize police authority to conduct the stop

A responsible citizen must first recognize that police do have the authority to conduct investigatory detentions of people and that innocent or guilty, citizens are lawfully required to comply. In any event, when the police are investigating a citizen, they are doing the job assigned to them. In other words, if the police decided not to stop a person fitting the description of a crime, they would be derelict in their duty. In conducting investigatory stops, they are, in fact, acting in the interest of society by attempting to apprehend criminals. Consider if the police received a report of a crime and decided not to investigate a person who fits the description of the offender and therefore might be the offender.

Illuminate interior car lights

If stopped in a car at night, put on the dome light in your vehicle and keep your hands on the steering wheel. This allows the officer to view your activity and lessens the possibility of mistake about interpreting furtive movement. Turn off your engine and stay in the car unless asked to exit. Do not reach for a license or proof of insurance until a request is made by the officer. If you are stopped as a pedestrian, keep hands out of pockets unless an appropriate request is made by police.

Consider cooperating with questioning or searches

Keeping in mind that the Fifth Amendment provides the right to avoid self-incrimination and therefore allows silence, a citizen who is innocent might be able to clear up possible suspicion merely by answering questions or producing something like a store receipt demonstrating previous location and time that provides an alibi for the crime in question. If choosing to answer questions, be aware that anything you say can be used against you in court. You are under no obligation to consent to search unless the officer invokes either reasonable suspicion or probable cause, but if nothing incriminating is present, a search might send you on your way sooner than a prolonged investigation will.

Make a report with the department

If you believe that the police improperly asserted authority in conducting a stop not based on reasonable suspicion or probable cause, or that conduct during the stop violated your rights, report the incident to the appropriate agency. Do not commit any act that obstructs the police from conducting an investigation, since criminal charges might result.

Get Legal Help

If you or a loved one has been investigated and subsequently charged after a police stop that you believe to be improperly conducted, protect your rights as provided by the Fourth Amendment (freedom from unreasonable search and seizure) and Fifth Amendment. Contact the criminal defense attorneys at The Nahajski Firm, in Seattle, at (206) 621-0500 for a free and confidential initial consultation.