An Op-Ed by Stefano L. Molea, Esq

Contact with law enforcement can be unsettling. For many, this is a very unique experience that carries a certain level of anxiety and fear not only because of the potential of a citation or arrest, but also because of the interaction with the police officer. Unfortunately, popular media coverage has only inflamed the public’s perception of law enforcement thereby increasing the likelihood that the interaction will take on a negative tone.

Police officers are, inherently, authority figures (with guns). Feeling intimidated is natural under such conditions since they have restricted your freedom of movement and are investigating you for an alleged violation of the law, which carries penalties. Such intimidation can trigger varying reactions.

The first common reaction is defensiveness: “why are you wasting your time with me? That guy was going way faster!” or “don’t you have real crimes to investigate?” The second is extreme politeness: “yes officer, I am so sorry I was speeding” or “you have such a difficult job, I don’t want to make it harder, I totally did it.” Is there a right approach when dealing with an officer?

There is no right answer to law enforcement

Like many questions within the law, there is no definite right answer, mainly because your audience will not always be the same. Some officers will be friendly while others will enjoy asserting their authority with an attitude. I will propose, however, some reactions to avoid and things to contemplate.

First, remember that these officers are people doing their job just like you and most will appreciate you being kind. I have never seen a suspect of a crime let go or issued a warning after having patronized the officer. Asserting your rights does not require acting like a jerk. Think of it this way: if you are confident that you are being illegally detained or have a lawful defense to the alleged crime, there is a time and a place to present your case: court. Be inspired by President Roosevelt’s words of wisdom: “speak softly and carry a big stick.”

On the other hand, consider avoiding the other extreme of the spectrum; you can be friendly and polite without incriminating yourself (assuming you subscribe to the theory of self-preservation and that not every mistake requires or deserves punishment by the government). When I discuss this topic with friends, family, and even clients, I always remind them that there is a difference between the word “guilty” in common parlance, and “guilty” in criminal law.

In our criminal justice system, “guilty” means that the government can prove, by competent evidence, each and every element of the alleged crime beyond a reasonable doubt. The reasonable doubt standard is the highest burden in our entire legal system, which makes sense when you think about it since it protects the criminally accused from the government taking his or her life, liberty, and/or property. So, in short, do not let the intimidation factor compel you to answer every question or submit to every (or any) test.

Be polite, but don’t talk too much

Do your research or speak to an attorney who can advise you about what you are or are not required to do in certain law enforcement situations. If you are really not sure, and an officer proposes to conduct a test or asks particular questions, ask him or her: “am I required to do or answer that?”

Remember, there are two types of polite people under these circumstances: first, those who are polite and who incriminate themselves; second, those who are polite and do not incriminate themselves or otherwise give the officer information that will aid in their own prosecution. Most of the time, both may be arrested and/or cited, but the latter may have preserved certain legal arguments or defenses.