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Understanding your rights during a traffic stop: Part I

Our last two posts focused on racial profiling and the overly aggressive tactics police officers commonly seem to use these days. Although the particular incident we wrote about was local to Colorado, similar problems are occurring nationwide.

By this point, many Colorado readers have heard about the recent incident in Texas, where an African-American woman was pulled over for a minor offense and arrested after a quickly escalating encounter. The story made national headlines because the woman later died while in police custody; a death that was allegedly a suicide but which seems very suspicious.

It may take quite a lot of time and investigation to get to the truth of what truly happened to Sandra Bland. In the meantime, the details surrounding her traffic stop and eventual arrest have prompted a lot of discussion about a suspect's rights after being detained and after being arrested.

First of all, the line between detainment and arrest is often unclear, especially during a traffic stop. Police officers sometimes ask questions casually, and it's difficult to know which requests are truly requests and which are actually demands.

Generally speaking, you do have to provide identifying information when asked, including name, address, license/ID and registration/insurance information. For most other questions - especially those that pertain to a crime or offense - you can choose to remain silent or otherwise refuse to answer.

If you are not sure whether you have been arrested or just stopped/detained, you can and probably should ask: "Am I free to leave?" If you are free to go, you have not been arrested and can walk away without any further cooperation. But if you have been arrested, one of the smartest things to do at that point is exercise your right to an attorney. Anyone placed under arrest can refuse to answer questions without a criminal defense attorney there to advise them. Having an attorney there can ensure that your rights are not violated and that you are not tricked/coerced into making incriminating statements.

Please check back next week as we continue this discussion.

Source: TIME, "What to Do If You Get Pulled Over by a Cop," Jason Williamson, July 23, 2015

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