The first thing to do is slow down. Breathe. Feel your feet on the ground. Take time to get yourself calm, ready to assert your rights and keep yourself safe.
A cop can only keep you from leaving if they have “reasonable suspicion” that you’ve done something against the law. This is called being detained. Even though you aren’t under arrest, you can’t leave.
Cops try to talk to people even without reasonable suspicion. They call these interactions “voluntary.” You don’t have to stay and talk with a cop during a voluntary interaction.
You may not be sure what kind of interaction you are having with a cop. You can ask: “Am I free to go?” or “Am I being detained?” If the cop says you are free to go, walk away calmly.
You do not have to answer any questions that a cop asks you. Cops can and do lie. They may say “You can go home, if you tell us about your friend.” But they don’t have to keep that promise.
Generally, it’s best to not answer any questions. The only exception may be choosing to give your name and address. If an officer asks you anything other than your name, you can say “I choose to remain silent.”
A cop can only search you in specific situations. A common example is patting the outside of your clothes if they believe you may have a weapon.
But sometimes cops try to get around this by asking for your permission: “Can I take a look in your backpack?” or “Can you empty your pockets for me?” You do not have to agree to this. If you do agree, any evidence could be used against you later because you consented.
Say: “I do not consent to any searches.” If an officer searches you anyway, do not resist. Your lawyer can fight the evidence in court.
This is not legal advice. It is legal information, intended for residents of Richmond, Virginia.
This project is a collaboration with RISE for Youth, Peter Paul, and the Legal Aid Justice Center. For more information about the Our Rights Matter campaign, contact Kim Young, MSW, LCSW, Director of Family and Community Engagement at Peter Paul, at (804) 780-1195. For information on youth advocacy around policing and juvenile justice, contact RISE for Youth at https://www.riseforyouth.org/, @RiseforYouth, or on Facebook. For legal questions or issues, contact the Richmond office of the Legal Aid Justice Center at (804) 643-1086.
Cassie Powell & Wyatt Rolla are the attorneys responsible for this material. Updated Feb 2020.