Give It, Get It: Trust and Respect Between Teens and Law Enforcement

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What types of encounters might teens have with law enforcement?

1. Conversations – These interactions may be initiated by a citizen or an officer. A teen can approach the police or the police can approach a teen with a question or to engage in general conversation.This contact is usually consensual and the teen has the right to terminate the conversation and leave.

An example might be an officer approaching a citizen and asking, “Hey there, may I talk to you for a minute?” Once the conversation is over, or if you are ready to end the conversation, you should politely ask, “Officer, am I free to go?”

2. Detentions – This is an encounter with police whereby the police may detain a person for a brief time for investigatory purposes or to issue a summons or a traffic ticket. Detentions require reasonable suspicion that the person is doing something (or has just done something) unlawful based on specific facts requiring further investigation. Reasonable suspicion is more than a hunch. Examples may include:

  • someone fitting the general description of a criminal suspect for whom the police are searching;
  • an officer witnessing someone drop a suspicious object after seeing police; or
  • person who runs away after seeing police.

During a detention, officers may pat down the outer surface of the person’s clothing for weapons for officer safety. If no weapon is found, the officer should not conduct any further search, but questioning may continue. This level of interaction is less than an arrest, but is no longer consensual. The person is not free to disengage or leave.

3. Arrests – When you are under arrest, you are not free to leave the presence of the police. Similar in nature to a detention but escalated in severity, this is the physical taking of a person into police custody by legal authority. To make an arrest, the police must have probable cause, a sufficient reason based upon known facts to believe a crime has been committed. The police have the right to conduct a warrantless search of the suspect and their immediate surroundings during and immediately after arrest in the interest of officer safety and to prevent escape and the destruction of evidence (known as “search incident to arrest”).

A person placed under arrest must be advised of his/ her right to remain silent and right to legal representation before any questions are asked (“Miranda rights”). Once a person is arrested and charged with an offense, they must appear before a magistrate or judge before they can be released from custody.

What should I do if I am pulled over while driving?

If you are driving and being signaled by law enforcement to pull over, you should pull over as soon as you can do so safely. If you feel unsafe, you should

  • turn on your hazard lights and interior lights to alert the officer that you recognize his/her request; and
  • continue driving to the closest well-lit, public area.

If you are unsure if the person ordering you to pull over is a law enforcement officer (particularly if they are in an unmarked vehicle), it is appropriate

  • call the dispatch (by dialing 911) to verify that the person ordering you to pull over is an officer; and
  • to inform the dispatcher that you intend to pull over in a well-lit, public area, and to please inform the detaining officer of such.

You should always

  • keep your hands in plain sight on the steering wheel as the officer is approaching your vehicle and while speaking with the officer; and
  • follow his/her instructions about retrieving identification, car registration, etc., letting the officer know where such documents are located (“My registration is in the glove compartment. May I get it for you, sir/ma’am?”).

If you are stopped for a traffic infraction, signing the ticket is NOT an admission of guilt. You are asked to sign the ticket to acknowledge receipt of the ticket and to verify the information on the ticket is correct. This is also a legal acknowledgement that you will appear in court or take care of the infraction before the court date, if allowed by law. Your signature also assures the court you were given the time, date and place for your court hearing. Once you sign the ticket, you are free to leave; however, if you do not sign the ticket, the officer can arrest you.

What strategies should I keep in mind to help to ensure safe and appropriate interactions with law enforcement officers?

1. Give Respect / Get Respect – The most important strategy is to show respect to the law enforcement officer, and you will be shown respect in return. Police are present to protect and serve the community and its citizens. Always remember, their job is to maintain “law and order” for your benefit and for the benefit of the entire community.

Being a police officer is a difficult job, and officers never know who they are approaching or stopping. Officers are trained to always proceed with caution and to make safety a priority for everyone involved. Giving respect does not mean you should grovel before the police officer and you should certainly assert your rights in a calm and respectful manner. Likewise, the officer should be respectful to you at all times.

If the officer is unprofessional, or treats you disrespectfully, the best thing to do is to file a complaint after the incident is over. Never argue, curse, physically confront, or act in a disrespectful fashion towards the police officer at the scene. No one wants to see something as simple as a traffic ticket escalate into additional charges or a dangerous situation. The courtroom is the appropriate place to make an argument, not the roadside.

2. Stay Calm – Being able to stay calm allows you to maintain your composure and think clearly. Think ahead and consider your own emergency action plan in case you are stopped by a law enforcement officer. What adult will you call (typically a parent or guardian)? Who will you call if you are unable to reach that person (a “back-up” emergency contact)? Have all of your contact information readily available and be able to relay your location and circumstances to your adult contact at the appropriate time.

3. Provide Accurate Information – Giving the police officer your basic information (name, address, date of birth and social security number, registration/insurance) for a routine traffic stop or an accident is normal policy and procedure. If you produce a “fake” ID, or you give false information to the officer, you may be charged with identity theft, providing false information to the police, or obstruction of justice.

4. Know Your Rights and Responsibilities – Knowing the scope of a law enforcement encounter and how you should proceed is crucial. There is a big difference between a routine traffic stop,a “pat-down” search for weapons, a full search of your person and/or your vehicle, and ultimately an arrest. At each level of detention, your rights and responsibilities change.

If you are stopped and given a traffic ticket, once you sign it, you are usually free to leave, which you can confirm by asking the officer. If the officer asks you if he can search your vehicle, you have the right to say “no.” If you agree to allow the officer to search your vehicle, it is referred to as a “consensual search” and if anything illegal is found, it is admissible in court. Remember, however, if the officer has “probable cause” that a crime (as opposed to a traffic infraction) has been committed (such as seeing or smelling something that makes him believe drugs, alcohol, or weapons may be present), the officer has the right to search your vehicle without your consent. The Constitution protects citizens from “unreasonable searches and seizures”; however, when the officer can clearly articulate probable cause of criminal activity, the search is considered to be reasonable.

The officer also has the right to conduct a “pat-down” search of your outer clothing if there may be an issue of officer safety. If you are arrested for an offense, the officer can search you and/ or your vehicle incident to a lawful arrest. If the officer places you under arrest, it is unlawful for you to resist the lawful arrest or to attempt to elude the officer or to obstruct the officer from the discharge of his duties. The best thing to do is cooperate and get assistance from your parents and/or a lawyer as soon as possible.

Once you are arrested, you have the right to invoke your Fifth Amendment right to remain silent. You also have the right to have an attorney present if there is a custodial interrogation (i.e., if you are taken down to the police precinct or sheriff’s office to be questioned by law enforcement). When given the opportunity to make a phone call, you should notify an adult who can assist you. As you invoke your right to remain silent or request an attorney, always make sure you are being respectful.

Relevant Virginia Laws

Resisting Arrest

Code of Virginia § 18.2-479.1
Any person who intentionally prevents or attempts to prevent a law enforcement officer from lawfully arresting them, with or without a warrant, is guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor.

Obstruction of Justice

Code of Virginia § 18.2-460

Any person who by threats of bodily harm or force, knowingly attempts to intimidate or impede ... any law enforcement officer lawfully engaged in the discharge of their duties can be charged with Obstruction of Justice. (Depending on the facts, the charge may be a Class 1 misdemeanor or a Class 5 felony.)

Identity Theft

Code of Virginia § 18.2-186.3

Any person who uses identification documents or identifying information of another to avoid summons, arrest, prosecution or to impede a criminal investigation can be charged with Identity Theft. (Depending on the facts, the charge may be a Class 1 misdemeanor or a Class 5 or 6 felony.)

Providing False Information to Police

Code of Virginia § 18.2-460(D)

Any person who knowingly and willingly makes any materially false statement or representation to a law enforcement officer who is conducting a criminal investigation is guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor.

Attempt to Elude

Code of Virginia § 46.2-817

Any person who fails to bring their vehicle to a stop after having received a visible or audible signal from a law enforcement officer, drives in a willful and wanton disregard of such signal or who attempts to elude a law enforcement officer, whether on foot, in a vehicle or by other means is guilty of a Class 2 misdemeanor. If, however, the operation of the vehicle interferes with or endangers the law enforcement vehicle or endangers any person, the charge is elevated to a Class 6 felony. There is also a mandatory suspension of the person’s driver’s license if they are convicted of this crime.