Getting arrested can be scary. There will likely be lots of things running through your mind. And the one thing that’s most likely to work against you isn’t the officer sitting across the table (or across the sidewalk) from you – its your own fear. But like many situations in life, sometimes things look a lot worse than what they actually are.

Whenever a police officer demands that you stop, that you answer a question, or that you come with them, sometimes the situation is very fluid and it’s hard to tell where you stand. In these situations, there are three questions that are both easy to remember and incredibly useful in keeping you out of legal hot water.

“Am I free to go?”

Nothing prevents an officer from using their naturally-intimidating presence to stop somebody and pepper them with questions. “What’s your name?” “Can I see an ID?” “Where are you going?” But unless they’re detaining you for a purpose, they can’t legally prevent you from walking away. If there’s any doubt in your mind, asking “am I free to go?” will help you figure out just how much trouble you’re in.

“Am I being detained?”

Police officers can also detain you. If you’re being detained, you’re not allowed to leave – but you’re also not necessarily in any trouble….yet. To detain somebody, police officers have to have a reasonable suspicion that you’ve done something wrong. For example, when you’re pulled over for speeding you’re being detained. You’re not free to go, but you’re also not being hauled off to jail. Detentions, legally speaking, are supposed to be as brief as is reasonably possible – but during a detention anything you say or do could potentially turn “reasonable suspicion” into “probable cause”, and turn your detention into an arrest.

“Am I being arrested?”

If you’re being arrested, it means that the officer has a good reason (“probable cause”) to believe that you’ve committed a crime. This almost certainly means that you’ll be charged with a crime of some sort. Arrests are very serious, and you should say one thing and one thing only – “I need to speak to a lawyer.”

It’s never pleasant to be stopped by the police. But remember these three questions, remember your fifth amendment rights, and you’ll have a better shot staying out of unnecessary trouble.

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