Most people want to interact with the police for as short a time as possible. But it’s hard to walk away from a police officer who calls you over to him if you don’t know exactly what power they have over you. In this post, we’re going to talk about what your rights are when the police approach you in a public place and, if you want to, how you can legally walk away from the police.
Everyone in the U.S. of A. has the right to go about their lives without the police unreasonably stopping, searching, or seizing them. However, police officers often use their badge, their uniform, and general police demeanor to make you assume that you have to do whatever they say.
Often, you don’t need to speak to police officers at all. But it’s important to know when you must stop and speak to them because it can be a crime to walk away from police who are legally stopping or arresting you.
So let’s talk about how you can figure out whether or not you’re legally required to stop and talk to a police officer.
“Officer, am I free to go?”
That’s the simple question you can ask the police officer to find out if you can legally walk away from him. If the officer answers yes, feel free to walk away and go about your life.
If the answer is no, then the police officer is either stopping you for what’s called an “investigatory stop” or he’s stopping you to arrest you. Either way, your best move is to remain calm, be respectful, and refuse to speak further with the officer without a lawyer present.
Here are a few rules to follow when stopped by a police officer:
- Stop When a Police Officer Tells you to Stop
Remember that walking or running away from a police officer who is legally stopping you is a crime. So, since you don’t know what’s happening when a police officer tells you to stop, it’s best to stop in order to take stock of the situation.
You’re better off safe than sorry (or in jail).
- Be Courteous
You are always better off being courteous to police officers for two reasons: 1) they are in a position of power over you, and 2) police officers are just people doing a job. It doesn’t matter if the police officer is following the law or violating it, on the street the police officer has the power. You may win in court, but a court victory after spending time in jail is a cold comfort.
- Ask if You are Free to Go
Asking this question immediately tells the police officer that you know your rights and you’re not going to do whatever he wants just because he’s wearing a badge.
If he answers yes, then he is letting you know that he has no legal basis to detain, stop, or hold you there. If he tells you that you are not free to go, he’s letting you know that you are a suspect in a crime and he’s out to get you. At that point, it’s in your best interest to explain to him that you refuse to speak to him without an attorney present.
- Make sure you get a yes or no answer.
Police officers often evade the “free to go” question. They usually change the subject or ask you another question like, “If you have nothing to hide, why don’t you answer my question?”
It makes sense from the officer’s point of view. They want to gather information from you. If you know enough to ask if you’re free to go and they answer yes, then they know that you’re likely to leave. So they delay in the hope that you will forget about your question or be too intimidated to ask it again. Don’t forget and don’t be intimidated. Remember, police officers are there to protect and serve your community.
Make sure to get a straight-forward answer to your question. Are you free to go?
- If the Officer Says You’re Free to Go … GO!
Lastly, if you don’t want to speak to the officer and the officer answers that you are free to go, then get on out of there. No reason to hang around a place you don’t want to be.
Let’s say you’re walking down the street. You have just enough time to grab a cup of coffee before getting into work. An officer parked on the side of the road says, “Hey, you, come here.”
You walk over to his car. He says, “What are you doing around here? Let me see your ID.”
You are courteous, so you say, “Officer, I understand you’re just doing your job but I have to get to work. Am I free to go?”
Instead of answering, the officer says, “Somebody just broke into that store right there. He was wearing the same color shirt you are. What were you doing ten minutes ago?”
You realize that the officer didn’t answer your question, so you ask him again, “Officer, I understand that you’re just doing your job. Am I free to go?”
The officer starts to get frustrated and says, “If you have nothing to hide, why won’t you sit in my car with me and answer my questions.”
You notice he still hasn’t answered your question. So you ask him again, “Officer, I have to get to work. Am I free to go?”
This time, the officer says, “Yes, you’re free to go.”
You say, “Thanks, have a good day.” And you walk away. You get your coffee, and you make it to work on time.
And that’s how you can legally walk away from the police.
What’s that, dear reader? You want me to come back? I’m sorry but I have work to do. That doesn’t matter to you?
Answer me this, dear reader: Am I free to go?
 United States Constitution 4th Amendment
 I’ll explain investigatory stops in another blog post.