I talk a lot about what legal education doesn’t prepare you for. You know what it does prepare you for? Any future interaction with police officers. By the time I finished 1L year, I knew the golden rule for dealing with officers of the law: keep your mouth shut. Knowing the law and knowing your rights helps. But whenever you deal with a cop, you should say as little as possible.
Look, as a black man that lesson probably increases my life expectancy. But every person with legal training can benefit from simplicity of silence when cops are around. If I was the victim of a home break-in and called the cops myself, I wouldn’t say anything to them when they showed up. I’d just kind of point at things and shake my head.
You don’t even have to be a practicing lawyer to reap the benefit of these skills. On his blog, Concurrent Sentences (gavel bang: Volokh Conspiracy), a Michigan area law student explains how he masterfully handled a recent traffic stop. It’s a skill all lawyers should have…
You should read the full account between the law student and the traffic cop here. But I want to show you a couple of excellent excerpts:
I got pulled over again on Friday evening. In the same exact spot I was pulled over a couple weeks ago. And again, no ticket and no warning because the stop was an illegal stop and detention. My interaction with the Asshole Police Officer (APO) went something like this:
APO: Good afternoon
APO: Good afternoon sir
APO: GOOD AFTERNOON SIR [raising voice]
APO: Do you know why I pulled you over?
APO: I pulled you over because you have window tint on your front side windows
APO: You ever been pulled over for this before?
ME: No, my car is registered in Colorado.
APO: In Michigan you are not allowed to have window tint on your front side windows.
ME: Officer, I am not trying to argue with you, but I am very familiar with the statute relating to window tint in Michigan and I know that the statute specifically exempts vehicles that are not registered in Michigan.
[I am VERY familiar with it, and I keep a copy of it in my car. MCL 257.709 (3)(d) "this section shall not apply to a vehicle registered in another state . . ." My car is registered in Colorado and has clearly visible Colorado plates.]
At this point, all the kid really needed to do was remind the officer of the law, and answer direct questions with simple yes or no answers. Pretty much, that’s what the guy did:
ME: Officer, if you think it is illegal write me a ticket and we’ll have a judge decide.
APO: Just give me your license, insurance and registration. How long have you lived in East Lansing?
[Trying to get me to say something that would be an admission that my vehicle is illegally registered in Colorado because residents have to register vehicles in Michigan I think within 90 days of taking up residency. It is not illegally registered.]
ME：Officer, my vehicle is registered in Colorado.
APO: I know but how long have you lived here?
ME: Officer, my vehicle is registered in Colorado.
APO: Ok, you don’t want to talk to me . . .
No, you should never want to talk to the cops. They can’t misconstrue something if you don’t say anything.