These suggestions from the National Lawyers Guild “Know Your Rights” guide summarize the rules to which the police are theoretically subject. However be careful: the police, the courts, and the government can and do manipulate and ignore these rules. Police often retaliate against people for exercising their rights. These tips may help you later on in court, and sometimes they won’t. It’s best to know your rights so you can decide when to assert them, even though the state can’t be counted on to follow its own laws. Always use your best judgment — if you aren’t doing anything wrong, there may be no reason to be excessively paranoid or escalate a potentially innocent and brief encounter with a police officer. The point is to avoid giving information.
Providing this information isn’t intended to scare you into inactivity or make you paranoid. Even in the current context, the vast majority of radical projects proceed with no interference from the police. The police hassle and arrest people because they hope that such repression will frighten the population into submission. We can take reasonable precautions while continuing the fight for liberation.
Never Talk to the Police
Anything you say to an FBI agent or cop can and will be used against you and other people — even if the questions seem routine or harmless. You don’t have to talk to FBI agents, police or investigators on the street, if you’ve been arrested, or if you’re in jail. (Exceptions: Your name, date of birth and address are known as “Booking questions” which are not included in your right to remain silent. In some states you can get an additional minor charge for refusing to identify yourself after a police stop based on reasonable suspicion). Only a judge has the authority to order you to answer questions. Many activists have refused to answer questions, even when ordered by a judge or grand jury, and subsequently served jail time to avoid implicating others. It is common for the FBI to threaten to serve you with a grand jury subpoena unless you talk to them. Don’t be intimidated. This is frequently an empty threat, and if they are going to subpoena you, they will do so anyway. If you do receive a subpoena, call a lawyer right away.
Once you’ve been stopped or arrested, don’t try to engage cops in a dialogue or respond to accusations. If you are nervous about simply refusing to talk, you may find it easier to tell them to contact your lawyer. Once a lawyer is involved, the police sometimes back off. Even if you have already answered some questions, you can refuse to answer other questions until you have a lawyer. Don’t lie to the police or give a false name— lying to the police is a crime. However, the police are allowed to lie to you, in fact they are trained to — don’t believe what they say. If you’ve been arrested, don’t talk about anything sensitive in police cars, jail cells or to other inmates — you are probably being recorded.
What To Do About Police Harassment On The Street
If the police stop you on the street, ask, “Am I free to go?” If yes, walk away. If not, you are being detained but this does not necessarily mean you will be arrested. Ask, “Can you explain why you are detaining me?” To detain you, cops must have specific reasons to suspect you have committed or about to commit a crime. Police are entitled to pat you down during a detention. If the police try to further search you, your car, or your home, say repeatedly that you do not consent to the search, but do not physically resist.
What To Do If Police Stop You In Your Car
If you are stopped while driving a car, you must show police your license, registration and proof of insurance, but you do not have to consent to a search or answer questions. Keep your hands where the police can see them and refuse to consent (agree) to a search. Police may separate passengers and drivers from each other to question them, but no one has to answer any questions.
No matter your age or documentation status you have constitutional rights: right to remain silent, right to a lawyer, and protection against unreasonable search and seizure.
Common Sense Activist Security Measures
Don’t speculate on or circulate rumors about protest actions or potentially illegal acts. Assume you are under surveillance if you are organizing mass direct action, anything illegal, or even legal stuff. Resist police disruption tactics by checking out the authenticity of any potentially disturbing letter, rumor, phone call, or other form of communication before acting on it. Ask the supposed source if she or he is responsible. Deal openly and honestly with the differences in our movements (race, gender, class, age religion, sexual orientation, etc.) before the police can exploit them. Don’t try to expose a suspected agent or informer without solid proof. Purges based on mere suspicion only help the police create distrust and paranoia. It generally works better to criticize what a disruptive person says and does without speculating as to why.
People who brag about illegal activities, make reckless proposals, or ask for unnecessary information about underground groups may be undercover police but even if they are not, they should be treated with extreme caution. The police may send infiltrators/provocateurs posing as activists to entrap people on conspiracy charges of planning illegal acts. You can be guilty of conspiracy just for agreeing with one other person to commit a crime even if you never go through with it — all that is required is an agreement to do something illegal and a single “overt act” in furtherance of the agreement, which can be a legal act like going to a store. It is reasonable to be suspicious of people in the scene who pressure us, manipulate us, offer to give us money or weapons, or make us feel like we aren’t cool if we don’t feel comfortable with a particular tactic, no matter why they do these things. Responsible activists considering risky actions will want to respect other people’s boundaries and limits and won’t want to pressure you into doing things you’re not ready for. Doing so is coercive and disrespectful — hardly a good basis on which to build a new society or an effective action.
Keep in mind that activists who spend all their time worrying about security measures and police surveillance will end up totally isolated and ineffective because they won’t be able to welcome new folks who want to join the struggle. We have to be aware of the possibility of police surveillance while maintaining our commitment to acting openly and publicly. The changes we seek will require mass movements as well as secretive covert actions by a small groups of your trusted friends.
For more info contact the National Lawyers Guild: 415 285-5067 or 212 679-5100; read The War at Home by Brian Glick or Agents of Repression by Ward Churchill