These suggestions from the National Lawyers Guild “Know Your Rights” guide summarize the rules to which the police are theoretically subject. Since the police, the courts, and the government can and do ignore these rules when they feel like it, these tips should be taken with a grain of salt. Sometimes these tips may help you later on in court, and sometimes they won’t. But even though the state can’t be counted on to follow its own laws, it still may be helpful to know what these laws are so you can shame particular state agents or deal with particular situations. 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 who is just saying “hi” into an ugly situation by acting suspicious and refusing to say “hi” back. The point is to avoid giving information. We don’t want people to interpret these suggestions so strictly that the suggestions themselves cause problems.
Providing this information isn’t intended to scare you into inactivity or make you paranoid. The vast majority of radical projects are legal and proceed with no interference from the police. The police hassle and arrest people because they hope that such repression will frighten 99 percent of the population away from radical activity. 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 may 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. (Exception: in 20 states, you can be prosecuted for refusing to give your name. Refusing to give your name in the other 30 states may arouse 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 usually back off because they’ve lost their power to intimidate. 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 — 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. All of this applies whether you’ve been busted for a minor infraction, or a serious felony.
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 stop you, cops must have specific reasons to suspect you of involvement in a specific crime. Police are entitled to frisk you (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.
You can fight police harassment by watching the cops. You have a right to be in public and to observe police activity. Write down all police officers’ names & badge numbers, addresses of witnesses, the time, date, place and details of the incident, etc. If stopped, get people to watch for you.
What To Do If Police Visit Your Home
You do not have to let the FBI or police into your home or office unless they have a search or arrest warrant. Demand to see the warrant. It must specifically describe the place to be searched and the things to be seized. If they do present a warrant, you do not have to tell them anything other than your name and address. Tell the police that you do not consent to the search – this will (theoretically) limit them to search only where the warrant authorizes. If the officers ask you to give them documents, your computer, or anything else, look to see if the item is listed in the warrant. If it is not, do not consent to them taking it. You have a right to observe what they do. You should take written notes of what they do, their names, badge numbers, etc. Have friends who are present act as witnesses.
What To Do If Police Stop You In Your Car
If you are 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.
What To Do If You Are Arrested
Repeatedly tell the police “I don’t want to talk until my lawyer is present.” If you suffer police abuse while detained or arrested, try to remember the officer’s badge number and/or name. You have the right to ask the officer to identify himself. Write down everything as soon as you can and try to find witnesses. If you are injured, see a doctor and take pictures of the injuries as soon as possible.
Searches at International Borders
Your property (including data on laptops) can be searched and seized at border crossings without a warrant. Consider backing up or not bringing important data before going through customs.
Police Hassles: What If You Are Not A Citizen?
In most cases, you have the right to a hearing with an immigration judge before you can be deported. If you voluntarily give up this right or take voluntary departure, you could be deported without a hearing and you may never be able to enter the US legally again or ever get legal immigration status. Do not talk to the ICE, even on the phone, or sign any papers before talking to an immigration lawyer. You do not have to reveal your immigration status to any government official. If you are arrested in the US, you have the right to call your consulate or have the police inform the consulate of your arrest. Your consul may help you find a lawyer. You also have the right to refuse help from your consulate.
Police Hassles: What If You Are Under 18 Years Old?
Don’t talk to the police — minors also have the right to remain silent. You don’t have to talk to cops or school officials. Public school students have the right to politically organize at school by passing out leaflets, holding meetings and publishing independent newspapers as long as these activities do not disrupt classes. You have the right to a hearing with your parents and an attorney present before you are suspended or expelled. Students can have their backpacks and lockers searched by school officials without a warrant. Do not consent to any search, but do not physically resist.
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. Check 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, recklessly propose, or ask for unnecessary information about underground groups or illegal activities are a severe danger to the movement. The police may used 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. Smashing the system is going to require mass action as well as secretive covert actions by a tiny clique of your trusted friends.
More info contact the National Lawyers Guild: 415 285-1055 or 212 627-2656; read The War at Home by Brian Glick or Agents of Repression by Ward Churchill