Stopped by the police? Know your rights, and use them

You've probably seen it a hundred times on TV: the cops stop a suspect, and just before they slap on the cuffs, one of the officers reads him his Miranda rights.

While fictional television shows don't always get the details right, it is certainly true that you have rights when facing arrest. By having a basic understanding of these rights and knowing when you should use them, you can save yourself a lot of legal headaches down the road.

You should receive a Miranda warning when you are placed in police custody

So-called "Miranda rights" actual derive from the constitution. A more accurate way to describe the statement of rights read by police officers making an arrest is a "Miranda warning," as the well-known legal caseMiranda v. Arizona did not establish these rights, but instead made it clear that arresting officers should inform suspects of their rights before interrogating them. An effective Miranda warning advises you of your "right to remain silent," your "right to speak to an attorney and to have your attorney present during any questioning" and the fact that anything you say can be used against you in court.

The rights listed in a Miranda warning apply when you are in police custody; in other words, they apply when you are no longer free to leave. Before you are placed in custody, the police do not have to advise you of your rights when asking you questions - but remember, beyond identifying yourself, you are never obligated to answer police questions. If a police officer comes up to you on the street and starts asking questions, you should politely ask the officer if you are free to go, and if he or she says you are, you should walk away calmly. If the officer requests permission to search your person, your home or your vehicle, make it clear that you do not consent to such a search.

The situation is a little different if you have been placed under arrest or your freedom of movement has otherwise been restricted by the police. In these circumstances, the police should have read you your Miranda warning. If police failed to advise you of your rights after placing you in custody, any information they elicit from you through questioning should be inadmissible against you in court.

You were arrested: Now what?

So say you have been arrested; what next? First of all, remember that you have the right to remain silent, and use it. Once you have been arrested, you can talk yourself into trouble, but you can't talk yourself out of it. Politely but firmly tell officers that you wish to exercise your right to remain silent, and that you will not answer any questions without an attorney present. This should stop any further questioning; if it doesn't, do not answer any questions, and instead repeat that you wish to speak with an attorney. Then, contact a criminal defense attorney for further advice as soon as you are able.

You may be understandably upset about being arrested. Even so, refrain from calling the officers names or otherwise acting anything but calm and courteous. Believe it or not, being polite to officers can work to your advantage later in your case. What's more, officers who are treated with respect are more likely to be respectful of your request to exercise your rights.

Getting arrested is undoubtedly a stressful experience. Yet, it pales in comparison to the prospect of a criminal conviction. By remembering to exercise your rights during police encounters and contacting an experienced criminal defense attorney as soon as possible, you can give yourself the best chance at getting charges dropped or reduced.