The Rights Stuff


When the civil libertarian activist Steven Silverman founded Flex Your Rights in 2002, his goal was to spread awareness of how basic Bill of Rights protections apply during encounters with law enforcement officials. "Generally," he advises, "the less you say, the less likely you'll be to incriminate yourself." But for those times when you must speak up, Silverman urges everyone to "memorize and practice these three key lines":

1. "Officer, I don't consent to  searches." In order to search your car, police must have probable cause to believe a crime is at hand. Absent probable cause, though, your consent will legally suffice. Refusing to give an officer permission won't always prevent a search, but if you steadfastly refuse to consent you'll be in a far better position to fight any charges in court if alleged contraband is found.

2. "Officer, are you detaining me, or am I free to go?" This line may help withdraw you from an unwelcome encounter. Stating your desire to leave establishes that the encounter is not voluntary.

3. "Officer, I have nothing to say. I'd like to speak with a lawyer." If you're being detained or arrested, assert your Sixth Amendment right to counsel. Then shut up until you get a lawyer. Anything you say can—and probably will—be used against you later in court.