In recent newsletters we’ve offered tips on how to handle yourself in some very specific and potentially perilous roadside situations (recording police during traffic stops and what to do if asked for a DNA sample). Running throughout is the theme that motorists need to know and assert their civil rights in order to protect themselves from potential abuses by law enforcement.
A recent decision by the Delaware Supreme Court highlights how important this is. The court ruled that police cannot unduly detain a motorist pulled over for a routine violation in order to conduct a more extensive investigation into another crime. “An officer who pulls a car over for speeding does not thereby gain free rein to ask as many questions, for as long a time, as he might wish,” the court’s ruling stated. “Further investigation requires further justification.”
The court went on to state that once the officers concluded their investigation of the initial alleged traffic violation, they had no authority to continue detaining the car and no reason to suspect the driver of additional crimes.
Nonetheless, if the driver had known he was free to leave at this stage, he could have saved himself from a lengthy legal battle. He could have exercised his rights with these six simple words: “Am I free to go now?” But he didn’t, and the officers kept pushing until they found evidence of another crime—evidence that the Delaware Supreme Court ruled inadmissible because of how it was obtained.
The phrase, “Am I free to go now?” should find its way into nearly any roadside interaction you have with police. If you choose to answer questions at a traffic stop (be careful when doing so), one strategy is to end every answer with “Am I free to go now?” It’s an assertion of your rights, and it may prevent a routine stop from escalating into a more serious situation.
The video below shows what can go wrong when a motorist doesn’t assert his rights. The officer stopped the car on the flimsiest of pretenses and proceeded to manipulate the driver into consenting to a full-on vehicle search complete with a “drug-sniffing” dog.
How many times could the driver have said “Am I free to go now?” and potentially extricated himself and his passenger from this harrowing experience?
Note also how the officer tried to manufacture reasonable suspicion by claiming the passenger appeared nervous—a ploy likewise repudiated by the Delaware decision. The whole dynamic is reminiscent of a used car salesman manipulating a buyer into a bad deal.
Now watch this video in which a motorist challenges U.S. Border Patrol officers at an immigration checkpoint in Arizona. His choice of phrases differs slightly, but the intent is the same. Notice that he does not get distracted by the officer asking him questions. He stays on task and accomplishes his objective: getting through a roadblock without undue harassment.
To carry the salesperson analogy a little further, this driver asserted control over the transaction and never relinquished it. And he prevailed. If you go this route, remember to remain calm and don’t provoke the officer.
Will the Six Simple Words speed you on your way every time? Perhaps not, but they will demonstrate that you have exercised your rights, which may prove valuable should your traffic stop lead to subsequent legal proceedings.