First brush with the law: Know your rights when encountering police

First brush with the law: Know your rights when encountering police

Let’s just go ahead and get the obligatory warning out of the way: Don’t do illegal stuff.

But we know that some of you will, and when you encounter police, at least be aware of your rights so you don’t get yourself in more trouble than you’re already in. For legal advice, we consulted attorney David Heilberg, who reiterates: Don’t do illegal stuff. Don’t possess anything on your person, in your home or in your car that you don’t want the police to find in a search.

Here’s his advice for those who don’t heed that advice and find themselves in these typical situations.

Pulled over by police

The most common question Heilberg gets when he talks to sororities or fraternities is what to do if an officer asks you to consent to a search of your car. Decline permission. “That’s like waving a red flag in front of a bull,” he concedes. “They’re going to come up with a way to do it. The police can smell marijuana better than ordinary folks whether it’s there or not. Often they will try to detain you long enough for backup to arrive with a drug-sniffing K-9 to justify your search and arrest.”

However, “You have to assert your rights,” he says. And we don’t have to tell you that would be the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable and warrantless searches, right?

Make sure dashboard camera footage is preserved. And don’t talk to officers if they find anything.

Underage drinking party raid

“Don’t have a party, don’t have alcohol,” stipulates Heilberg.

First, dump the contraband. Should you run into the woods?

“If you’re not physically under arrest, you can walk away,” says Heilberg.

You’re under no obligation to take a breathalyzer, he says, “but if they smell alcohol, they may arrest you for possession.”

Stopped on the street

“If accosted on the street, without being rude or impolite or a jerk, you’ve got to assert your rights,” says Heilberg.

Again, you don’t have to talk to police unless you’re in a traffic accident when you are required to exchange personal, vehicle and insurance information with anyone else involved and police.

Remember these questions: Am I under arrest? Am I free to go?

Help solve a crime

In the 2007 alleged smoke bomb plot in which a disturbed teen talked about blowing up two Albemarle high schools, a 13-year-old boy was asked to come to the police station to help with the case—and he was charged with conspiracy.

If you’re asked to come down to the station for a friendly chat, “That’s when you call your lawyer,” says Heilberg. And make sure your parents are involved to stop the questioning until you have a lawyer, he advises.

Heilberg’s pet peeve: “Most people don’t know police are allowed to lie to you. I don’t think this should ever be permitted when the suspect is a juvenile. Why should your first encounter with the law teach you you can’t trust police?”

You don’t have to talk to police. “If you didn’t do anything wrong and want to talk to police, if that conversation doesn’t end in a reasonable time and shifts to an interrogation, it’s okay to say, ‘I want my parents, I want a lawyer,’” he says.

In another notorious local case, 18-year-old Robert Davis was arrested for a double homicide in Crozet, coerced into what has been called a “textbook” false confession and spent 13 years in prison before he was pardoned by then Governor Terry McAuliffe. His mother, Sandy Seal, before she died just weeks after his full pardon, said, “I’ve been kicking myself. I never talked to my kids and said, ‘If a policeman wants to talk to you to clear something up, say you want a lawyer.’”

Says Heilberg to would-be teen clients, “I look forward to not meeting you in my office.”

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