Know Your Rights

From 1995 to 2008, the Ella Baker Center's Bay Area PoliceWatch campaign worked to protect the community from police misconduct and advocate for the creation and implementation of restorative policing practices. Over the years, we provided a combination of social and legal services while mobilizing the grassroots.  The following resource was developed as part of our Bay Area Police Watch program.

Encounters with the police can be frightening and confusing. Use these guidelines to protect your rights when dealing with law enforcement officers.

If the Police Stop You...

  • Stay in control of your emotions and words. Don’t physically resist.
  • Keep your hands visible.
  • Remain silent. They have guns, pepper spray and billy clubs. Your strongest weapon is your mind.
  • The less you say, the better. Silence is not a crime.
  • Ask, "Am I free to go?" If they keep you, you are being detained.
  • Ask, "Why are you detaining me?" To detain you, the police must have reasonable suspicion that a person has been involved in criminal activity.  

or Try to Search You...

  • Never consent to a search.
  • Say loud and clear (especially if there are any witnesses present): "I do not consent to a search."
  • Don’t resist physically.
  • Don’t open your bag for them. It will count as consent to the search.
  • Police may 'pat down' your clothing if they suspect weapons or drugs.

or Try to Enter Your Home...

  • Never consent to a search.
  • Step outside. Lock the door behind you.
  • Ask to see a warrant. Make sure it has the right information (e.g., address) and a judge’s signature.
  • They can do only what the warrant allows them to. Warrants often limit the search to one room, one day, etc. Make sure they are complying with the warrant.

or Stop You in Your Car...

  • Stay calm. Again, you do not have to answer any questions.
  • When they ask you, show them your driver’s license, registration, and proof of insurance.
  • Tell the officer, "I do not consent to a search."
  • Don’t open your trunk or car door.
  • The police can order occupants out of their car for police safety.  As long as you maintain that you do not consent, opening your car door doesn't necessarily mean you consent to a search.
  • If they give you a ticket, sign it. Otherwise you can be arrested. Fight the ticket in court later.
  • If the police suspect you of drunk driving and you refuse to take a blood, urine or breath test, your license can be suspended.

If the Police Arrest You...

  • Do not answer any questions until a lawyer arrives to represent you.
  • Say only, "I choose to remain silent and I want to talk to my attorney."
  • The police may handcuff, search, photograph and fingerprint you.
  • Do not talk about your case to anyone except your attorney.

If You See or Experience Police Brutality

  • Remain calm.
  • Write down the details of the incident, badge numbers, and names of witnesses immediately.
  • Get a medical report immediately, as well as photographs documenting any injuries or property damaged.

Always Be a Witness

  • Always be a witness for a friend, relative or stranger.
  • Stop and watch.
  • Record the officer’s name, badge number, and car number. Write down the time, the place, who said what, and who did what.
  • If the officer tells you to leave, say, "I have the right to observe from a safe distance." Assure them, "I’m not trying to interfere."