UPDATED: Four Magic Phrases To Use If You’re Stopped By The Police

New York State Police Traffic Stop
(For the update, starring actress and active member of the National Association of the Deaf Marlee Matlin, see the video near the bottom of this post. And for another perspective that includes what People Of Color might experience, go to the bottom of the post.)

Whether a traffic stop that turns into “We smell something in your car” or a “driving while black” incident, you have rights when you’re pulled over — and it’s for the best if you actually use them.

So … how does this work? Well, you have rights when you are involved in a police situation. These have been established via case law, and ultimately, some from the Constitution itself. In order, here are the magic phrases, along with some graphics to help you remember. (Author’s note: As several readers have pointed out … yes, you could make a cop angry by invoking or stating your rights, and that could mean they will rough you up. Does that mean you shouldn’t use them? Absolutely not. In fact, I’d argue that it makes it even more important to follow along closely with this script, because if they then violate the law, you’ve got a better leg to stand on later when you take them to court.)

1. “Am I free to go?”

In any situation involving the police, you can ask this question. Some people ask it slightly differently: “Am I being detained?”—which is a version of the same question. Quite simply, if they’ve got nothing on you, they have to let you go. If they answer “No” to that question, you are in fact not free to go. In that case, you are suspected of doing something. It’s their job to try to get you to admit to it or to say a bit too much and incriminate yourself. This is where it gets tricky!

2. “I do not consent to any searches.”

One of the craftiest things that some law enforcement folks try is to talk you into letting them search your vehicle — or house, for that matter. They’ll say things like:

“So if you haven’t done anything, then you’re OK with us searching your car … right? I mean, if you’re innocent. We’ll go easier on you if you let us do it.”

Do NOT give up your rights that easily. Are you certain your buddy didn’t leave a bag of weed in the glove box? Are you sure your boyfriend took his target pistol out of the trunk after he went to the range the other day? Are you absolutely certain that the body in your trunk was removed and buried in that farm fiel … whoops. Did I say that last one out loud?!

The point is, don’t give up your rights easily. And believe me, cops are skilled at trying to play psychological games. Which leads to #3.

3. “I want to remain silent.”

You have that right, and if things start getting thick, use it.

“Sir, we clocked you going 60 in a 50, but when you opened your window to give us your license, we smelled marijuana.”

The correct, immediate answer to something like this is, “I want to remain silent”— or just say nothing. The temptation might be to say, “Yeah, my buddy and I smoked in my car this morning, but I wasn’t driving, blah blah blah” — but then you’re already nailed. Time for them to get the dogs and search. Congratulations, you’re on your way to the pokey for the night. Your very next move needs to be:

4. “I want a lawyer.”

If you’ve reach this particular point, then you’re in deep doodoo anyway, so go ahead and ask for one, and say nothing until he or she arrives.

Remember these four things! It will be hard in the moment, with your adrenaline pumping, your freedom in question, and when you’re possibly in physical danger, depending on the cops involved and perhaps your skin color.

1. “Am I free to go?”
2. “I do not consent to any searches.”
3. “I want to remain silent.”
4. “I want a lawyer.”

Maybe a word involving the first letter of the four statements will help you remember, like FoSSiL (Free, Searches, Silent, Lawyer).

Or maybe a mnemonic:

— Farmers Sell Single Lemons

— Fresh Sushi Stuffed Lobsters

— Fight Strong Stay Legal

— Free Spirits Seldom Lose

And here’s a graphic to help you remember.


The clip below is a shortened version of a much longer one that explains your rights, detailing what you can and cannot do in these situations. Note that the order of the above is a bit different than in the clip, but the principles are the same. Also, the idea for this article was inspired by this article on Alternet.

Here’s a first-person video of an actual DUI checkpoint stop where the citizen demonstrated that he knew his rights. It didn’t go so well at first, but then, he was indeed free to go.

Also, note that case law on this is still evolving. As recently as June 20, 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on a guy who was stopped in the street with no probable cause, was then found to have outstanding warrants, which meant the cops searched his pockets and found drugs. The Supremes decided he was not able to get the case thrown out because he did, indeed have a warrant out. Despite the fact that the cops had no reason to stop him in the first place.

So … yeah. Some of these rights are being eroded, but the core foundation remains.

Here is update #1: Actress Marlee Matlin made a video for those who are hard of hearing and who have other disabilities, because some incidents involving that part of our citizenry have occurred.

Another update: Y’all have made this post so very popular, and I have to add something about how the above interactions with cops might go if you’re African American, Hispanic, Latino, etc. This came from a fan who wants to remain anonymous.

The “rights” you wrote about should apply to all people but that is not the case with People Of Color. What you wrote is true and no additions are necessary but it works for white people primarily. I am convinced, due to personal experience and the daily, weekly shootings you hear on the news, unless you are white, the “rights” simply do not apply to people of color. My own experience included being talked to with contempt (when I called for help), intimidation, assumption of guilt or, that you are lying. I have never been arrested, or in jail but personal experience and the constant shootings and killing of men and women of color have left me afraid. If a Black man or woman were to say any one of those statements, with the wrong officer, you can be called an uppity nigger and get killed. That is why I referred to it as gaslighting, even in an innocent situation. It is a reign of terror, the new lynching, shoot first and create the story later. James Baldwin likened it to being in a constant state of rage, for me it is a constant state of fear.”

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