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Your civil rights

The following information was discussed by Attorney Whitney Hughes on the September 25, 2007 edition of Legal Briefs on KDKA's Pittsburgh Today Live Show.

Keep in mind that despite all of the bad publicity and horror stories, first and foremost a law enforcement officer’s job is to promote public safety and investigate all possible criminal activity.

That being said, there are limits to what law enforcement officers can and cannot do. You have certain rights which are guaranteed by both the U.S. Constitution and Pennsylvania’s Constitution.

The following are certain questions we hear quite frequently and some helpful tips when dealing with law enforcement.


What do I do if I’m stopped by the police?

You may be stopped for questioning by the police. A stop is not the same as an arrest because, although you may be detained, you aren't moved to a different location. During a stop, the police officer may ask you questions, but you have the right to refuse to answer.

What you say to the police is always important. What you say can be used against you, and it can give the police an excuse to arrest you, especially if you bad-mouth a police officer.

You must show your driver's license and registration when stopped in a car. Otherwise, you don't have to answer any questions if you are detained or arrested, with one important exception. The police may ask for your name if you have been properly detained, and you can be arrested in some states for refusing to give it. If you reasonably fear that your name is incriminating, you can claim the right to remain silent, which may be a defense in case you are arrested anyway.

Police may "pat-down" your clothing if they suspect a concealed weapon. Don't physically resist, but make it clear that you don't consent to any further search.

Upon request, show them your driver's license, registration, and proof of insurance. In certain cases, your car can be searched without a warrant as long as the police have probable cause. To protect yourself later, you should make it clear that you do not consent to a search. It is not lawful for police to arrest you simply for refusing to consent to a search. If you're given a ticket, you should sign it; otherwise, you can be arrested. You can always fight the case in court later.

If you're suspected of drunk driving and refuse to take a blood, urine, or breath test, your driver's license will be suspended.

What do I do if the police want to search my car or my house?

You don't have to consent to any search of yourself, your car or your house. If you do consent to a search, it can affect your rights later in court. If the police say they have a search warrant, ASK TO SEE IT. Do not interfere with or obstruct the police—you can be arrested for it.

Don’t the police always need a warrant to search?

No. There are many situations where police may legally conduct a search without first obtaining a warrant.

Consent searches. If the police ask your permission to search your home, purse, briefcase, or other property, and you agree, the search is considered consensual, and they don't need a warrant.

Searches that accompany an arrest. When a person is placed under arrest, the police may search the person and the immediate surroundings for weapons that might be used to harm the officer. If the person is taken to jail, the police may search to make sure that weapons or contraband are not brought into the jail. (This is called an inventory search.) Inventory searches also frequently involve a search of the arrested person's car (if it is being held by the police) and personal effects, on the theory that the police need a precise record of the person's property to avoid claims of theft.

Searches necessary to protect the safety of the public.The police don't need a warrant if they have a reasonable fear that their safety, or that of the public, is in imminent danger.

Searches necessary to prevent the imminent destruction of evidence. A police officer does not need to obtain a warrant if he/she has observed illegal items (such as weapons or contraband) and believes that the items will disappear unless the officer takes prompt action. This exception arises most frequently when the police spot contraband or weapons in a car. Because cars are moved so frequently, the officer is justified in searching the entire vehicle, including the trunk, without obtaining a warrant.

"Hot pursuit" searches.Police may enter private dwellings to search for criminals who are fleeing the scene of a crime.

What do I do if I’m arrested? What are my rights?

In order to be arrested, there must be what's called "probable cause." This means that there must be a reasonable belief that a crime was committed, and you committed the crime. The police DO NOT need an arrest warrant.

After you're placed under arrest, you are protected by constitutional rights. Two important rights to be aware of are right to remain silent and the right to have an attorney. After your arrest, you aren't required to say anything else to police or investigators, until you have an attorney present. You must be given the opportunity to contact an attorney.

1. DO NOT MAKE ANY STATEMENTS!! You have the right to remain silent and to talk to a lawyer before you talk to the police. Tell the police nothing except your name and address. Don't give any explanations, excuses, or stories.

2. ASK IMMEDIATELY TO SEE AN ATTORNEY. If you can't pay for a lawyer, you have a right to a free one, and should ask the police how the lawyer can be contacted. Don't say anything without a lawyer. Don't say anything without a lawyer.

3. Within a reasonable time after your arrest, or booking, you have the right to make a local phone call to a lawyer, bail bondsman, a relative, or any other person. The police may not listen to the call to the lawyer.

What do I do if the police come to my home?

1. You do not have to let them into your home unless they have a warrant signed by a judge.

2. However, in some emergency situations (like when a person is screaming for help inside or when the police are chasing someone) officers are allowed to enter and search your home without a warrant.

3. If you are arrested, the police can search you and the area close by. If you are in a building, "close by" usually means just the room you are in.

An officer has come to see me and is asking me questions pertaining to an investigation. Do I have to talk to him?

Keep in mind that you don’t know whether you are being questioned as a witness or a suspect, and the investigator may not know either. That being said, the investigator does not always have to read you your Miranda rights, and you should not consent to the questioning. Ask if you are a suspect; ask if you are free to go; ask if you are free to not answer the questions; ask for a lawyer. Remember that it is the investigator’s job to get enough information to support probable cause for an arrest warrant, or a criminal complaint so that an arrest can be made.

What are Miranda warnings, and when do they have to be given? I thought the police always had to “read me my rights.”

Under the Miranda Rule, if you are in police custody you must be informed of specific constitutional rights before interrogation begins. Those rights are as follows:

  1. The right to remain silent
  2. The right to have an attorney present during questioning
  3. The right to have an attorney appointed if you are unable
    to afford one

PLEASE KEEP IN MIND that Miranda rights do not have to be read until you are taken into custody. That means that you can be questioned by the police before being taken into custody, and anything you say at that point can be used against you later in court.

Helpful Tips:

Finally, contact the Allegheny County Bar Association’s Lawyer Referral Service at (412) 261-5555 to speak with an attorney.