Know Your Rights: Stopped by Law Enforcement

Getting stopped by police can be a frightening and violating experience. Although the burden should not fall to you to deescalate a stop, an interaction with police can sometimes turn volatile. You can reduce the risk of a charged police encounter by knowing your rights and employing the following strategies. Below, you will find information on:

Your rights

Your right to record

  • If you’d like a recording of the encounter to verify your experience, it is your right to film your encounter with police. Virginia is a one-party state, meaning that only one person in the interaction has to consent to being videotaped. You do not need an officer’s permission to film them.
  • If you are a bystander to a police encounter, you have the right to observe and film the interaction so long as you do not obstruct their movements. Do not try to hide that you are recording. The police cannot confiscate your recordings after the fact. 
  • You can download our Mobile Justice app to record encounters with public officials, report abuse by authorities, and empower yourself through informational materials and current events.

Your right to remain silent

  • You have the right to remain silent.
  • Make sure you voice your choice to exercise this right out loud.
  • You should identify yourself if asked, but you do not need to provide answers to questions regarding where you are going, what you are doing, and where you live.

Your right to not be stopped on the assumption you are doing something illegal

As of 2021, new laws in Virginia were introduced to address pretextual stops and enforcement of minor traffic violations. If the police search you after stopping you for one of the following, the evidence found would be inadmissible in court. 

  • Defective equipment, like lights that are out
  • Dangling objects
  • Dark window tints
  • Expired registration or inspection
  • Loud exhaust
  • Jaywalking
  • Marijuana odor

You have a right to know why you are being detained

You can ask a law enforcement officer if you are free to leave. If you are not under arrest, you have the right to calmly leave.

Your right to refuse a search

  • If law enforcement asks you to consent to a search of yourself or your property, it is your right to say no. Officers may pat you down to verify that you don’t have a weapon, and they may search your belongings anyway without your consent. Don’t impede police from completing an illegal search - leave that for your attorney to deal with later. 
  • Although possession of up to an ounce of marijuana will be legal as of July 1, 2021, it is important to know that an open container of marijauna in your vehicle is strictly prohibited. While the police cannot stop you for the smell of marijuana, if they stop you for something else and find marijuana in your vehicle (even if it is in a plastic bag or Tupperware) it can be considered an open container. We recommend not driving with weed at all, but if you have to, keep it in the trunk.
    Learn more about the new marijuana laws here.

Your right to a lawyer

  • If you are arrested, ask for a lawyer immediately. If you cannot afford one, the court will appoint one for you.
  • You should also save the number of your local community bail fund in case you are arrested and need help.

Your right to a phone call

  • If you are arrested by police, you have a right to a phone call. If you opt for a phone call with a family member or friend, the police can and probably will listen in on that phone call. The police cannot, however, listen to a call between you and your lawyer.

Reduce risk to yourself

Get to a well-lit, public area

If you are being pulled over, you can verify you are indeed being pulled over by real law enforcement and state that you are complying but waiting to pull over until you come upon a more public area by calling 911 and telling the dispatcher, who will then tell the responding officers. 

Stay calm

While it's not your job to deescalate the situation, speaking respectfully and avoiding hostile language may ease the encounter. Communicate clearly to the police about your rights. Do not consent to unwarranted searches. If you are feeling nervous or scared, say it out loud. Make sure you have everything recorded.

Don’t resist

Don’t resist arrest, even if you think the arrest is unfair. Comply with the officer’s commands for the time being and leave it for your lawyer to deal with later.

Keep your hands visible

Keep your hands on the steering wheel where the officer can see them, or hold them both in the air.

When the police violate your rights

Remember everything you can

Write down everything you can remember as soon as you get the chance. Record officer’s names, badge and patrol car numbers and get contact information for any witnesses if you can. Write down the moments you invoked your rights or when you believe your rights might have been violated. 

Document your injuries

If you have physical injuries, take time-stamped photos and seek medical attention. Keep documented proof of your visit to medical services. 

File a complaint

File a written complaint with the agency’s internal affairs division or civilian complaint board. In most cases, you can file a complaint anonymously if you wish. 

This information is prepared for general information purposes only and is not legal advice, which is dependent upon the specific circumstances of each situation. Also, the law may vary from state to state and the information on our website is not guaranteed to be up to date. Therefore, the information on our website cannot replace the advice of competent legal counsel licensed in your state.

Know Your Rights During Police Encounters — For Youth (from National ACLU, opens in new window)

What to Do When Dealing with Police – Deaf Rights (from National ACLU, opens in new window)