The job of a police officer is a difficult one that is loaded with serious responsibilities. The people who suit up and wear a badge every day are tasked with keeping order and protecting communities, all while knowing that every situation they walk into could be deadly. While many police officers are heroes, unfortunately, there are others who’ve abused the power the job gives them.
While policing is a job about enforcing rules, there are important rules that police officers themselves are required to follow as they do their work. While state, county and local departments have their own rules and regulations in place, there are some that span agencies across the United States. Here are some rules that many police officers are required to follow.
1. Respect Your Right To Remain Silent
No matter where you are in the United States, law enforcement officials have to respect your right to remain silent — courtesy of the Fifth Amendment — as long as you explicitly state that you wish to invoke it. If an officer pulls you over, you don’t have a legal obligation to answer questions about where you’re going, where you’re coming from or anything else that could incriminate you. The American Civil Liberties Union says some states require you to give police officers your name but, other than that, you should keep your mouth shut.
According to the online legal database Nolo’s Criminal Defense Lawyer website, silence typically cannot be used against you in court and may be your strongest option when being questioned by police.
2. Respect Your Right To An Attorney
This is another universal right granted by the Fifth Amendment that police officers must take seriously. Even if you can’t afford a lawyer, you have the right to one and should always take advantage of it if you’re under suspicion of committing any crime. Police officers are allowed to lie to you and will often make you feel like they are looking out for your best interests but, in reality, that may not be the case.
The ACLU recommends telling an officer you want to remain silent and you want a lawyer as soon as you are detained or arrested. They urge you not to say anything or especially sign anything without a lawyer’s advice first.
3. Allow You To Make A Call
If a police officer arrests you and takes you back to the police station, they have to give you the chance to make a local phone call. This is why many legal rights organizations recommend you memorize the phone number of a loved one and possibly an attorney. In the state of California, people who are arrested have the right to make three phone calls within three hours of their arrest.
Calling a lawyer is always recommended over calling anyone else, for a very important reason that involves another rule that police officers must follow.
4. Don’t Listen To Conversations With Your Lawyer
If you have phone conversations with friends, family or anyone who isn’t your attorney while you’re under arrest, you can bet police will be listening to and likely recording them, according to the ACLU. This is completely legal for investigators to do, but that privilege disappears in conversations involving your lawyer. It is illegal for police officers to listen in on any conversation you have with your legal representation.
5. Include Your Attorney During ‘Critical Stages’
This right is granted by the Sixth Amendment and sounds similar to the Fifth Amendment’s right to counsel during an initial interrogation but is actually different. Under the Sixth Amendment’s right to counsel, law enforcement officials are not allowed to deny a person the use of an attorney during any “critical stage” of criminal prosecution, which includes any time they are questioned about the specific crime they are suspected of committing. This means a person’s attorney has to be present for situations like arraignment, post-indictment lineups, plea negotiations and the entering of a plea.
6. Knock And Announce Themselves
Like many rules police officers have to follow that aren’t mandated by the U.S. Constitution, this one has some wiggle room. In general, before a police officer can execute a search warrant at a home or elsewhere, they have to knock on the door and announce themselves as law enforcement officials. The exceptions to this rule involve times where officers could be walking into a deadly situation if they announce themselves before coming in, giving potentially violent suspects a chance to prepare an attack.
7. Give You Your Miranda Rights
Pretty much everyone knows this rule, thanks to its prevalence in police dramas since 1966. Police officers are required to notify a person of their Miranda rights when they are placed in custody and going to be interrogated. These rights include the aforementioned right to remain silent and right to an attorney, and these rights must be translated into any language the person requires. Many people think that Miranda rights need to be read as soon as an officer arrests someone — and sometimes that is done — but it is often not done until the person is in the interrogation room, which is within an officer’s rights.
8. Respect A Person’s Home
Unless they have a warrant signed by a judge that lists your address on it, police officers do not have a right to enter your home. You can deny police officers entry into your home unless they have a warrant, but there are a few specific circumstances that will also allow them to enter. For example, if an officer is responding to a complaint and can see evidence of illegal activity happening inside the home, if they hear shouts for help from inside or if they are pursuing a suspect whom they see run into your home, they are also legally allowed to enter.
If you consent to letting a police officer into your home, even just as a witness to a crime, they can seize any illegal items they see and use them as evidence against you.
9. Respect A Person’s Vehicle
When it comes to dealing with police during a traffic stop, think of your vehicle as your home, both of which are protected by the Fourth Amendment. Police officers are not allowed to search your vehicle simply because they have a hunch or a personal suspicion that you’ve done something illegal, they must have a warrant or probable cause that would hold up in court. For example, if an officer sees you stuffing anything under your seat or into your glove box as they approach, that could give them legal cause to search your vehicle without a warrant.
If you get pulled over and an officer asks for permission to search your vehicle, it is always recommended that you decline because if they have good reason to do so, they will get permission through a search warrant.
10. Respect A Person’s Private Property
If a police officer wants to park on a person’s private property in order to clock the speed of passing drivers, they have to respect the property owner’s rights. For example, if an officer is parked on someone’s property and the property owner tells them to leave, the officer has to abide by their wishes or they’ll have grounds to lodge a complaint. Officers also can’t simply ignore “No Trespassing” signs that are placed on private roads or land and can be reported for such violations.
11. Respect A Person’s Right To Record Or Photograph Them
Due to the public nature of policing, officers have no legal right to expect privacy while they do their jobs. If you are recording video or taking pictures of an officer who is doing something wrong, the officer may tell you to stop recording or demand to see the footage you’ve got, but they have no legal right to do so unless they have a warrant. It is also always illegal for a police officer to delete anything from your device even if they got a warrant to look at it, according to the ACLU.
12. Have Proof For An Arrest
While police officers can talk to anyone they want to, they are not legally allowed to do anything further on the basis of a hunch or personal suspicion. Making an actual arrest is held to a specific standard of proof that goes far beyond an officer’s perceptions of wrongdoing.
The specific circumstances under which officers are allowed to make arrests include when they’ve personally witnessed a crime, when they have a signed arrest warrant with the person’s name on it or when they have probable cause from facts or evidence that proves someone committed a crime. This right comes from the Fourth Amendment against unlawful searches and seizures.
13. Only Use An Appropriate Amount Of Force
The Fourth and Eighth Amendments protect people against excessive force from law enforcement officials, which is a common basis for many complaints against police officers. The landmark 1985 Supreme Court case of Tennessee v. Garner overturned a Tennessee state law that allowed officers to do anything in their power to stop fleeing suspects, regardless of the situation. Now, the degree of force used by officers has to correlate with the level of threat posed to them and can only escalate when the threat escalates. This means that officers are not allowed to use physical force against people who have been rendered helpless.
14. Treat Every Person Equally
Law enforcement agencies across the United States are bound by the combined powers of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the related Office of Justice Programs Statute, which protect citizens against discrimination. These laws state that officers cannot discriminate based on a person’s race, color, national origin, sex or religion, according to the Department of Justice. This would cover things like discriminatory stops, coercive sexual behavior and use of slurs by officers. People with disabilities are similarly protected by Title II of the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act.
15. Operate Within Their Jurisdiction
If a police officer witnesses something suspicious happening outside their jurisdiction and pulls someone over or otherwise stops them and gathers evidence, that evidence could be thrown out in court if the defendant has an effective lawyer. However, there are specific occasions when police officers are allowed to conduct business outside of their jurisdiction. For example, if an officer initiates a traffic stop for a crime inside their jurisdiction and pursues the suspect outside of it, they are within their rights to stop that person and carry out their traffic stop as usual.
16. Use Their Patrol Car Only In Certain Situations
This is another one of those rules that is fairly common but will vary by department. Some police departments allow their officers to take their cruisers home, especially if they live within the jurisdiction they police. Many officers who are given this privilege are only allowed to use the car for commuting or on-duty business. There are exceptions, such as Florida’s Palm Beach Sheriff’s Office, which allows employees to use their assigned vehicles as an off-duty ride as long as they are within Palm Beach County, but forbids it outside those limits.
17. Leave Your Sealed Mail Alone
Once again, this rule has notable exceptions that police officers can take advantage of, but it is one they should also take seriously. Police officers are not allowed to open sealed mail that is in a person’s mailbox, but they can read the outside of the envelope, and they can open sealed mail that is left in the trash on the curb. Going through a suspect’s trash for evidence of a crime is common because it’s easy and completely legal. Police officers can also open sealed packages that are deemed suspicious by private carriers like UPS or FedEx.
18. Follow Traffic Laws In Most Situations
We’ve all seen police vehicles ignore red lights at one time or another, but this is only supposed to be done when the officer is responding to a call or an emergency situation. Officers are also required by law to use their emergency lights and sirens when breaking traffic laws, such as running red lights and speeding. If you see a police officer flip on their lights just to get through a red light only to immediately turn them off and continue driving at a normal speed, it’s the kind of thing you could report to their department.
19. Follow Parking Laws In Most Situations
You’ve probably also seen police and other emergency vehicles parked in “No Parking” zones many times, but it’s an act that’s only supposed to be used in emergency situations. For example, a woman in Greensboro, North Carolina, once reported it to the local police department when she saw a squad car parked in a handicap spot at a grocery store. It turned out that the officer driving it was responding to a reported theft inside the store. A superior officer at the department argued that this situation made it an acceptable use of the spot, despite the state’s law about handicap parking leaving no room for exceptions in any case.
20. The Bottom Line: Know Your Rights As A Citizen
While police officers certainly have rules that they must follow while on the job, as you’ve probably noticed from this list, they have a certain amount of leeway in many circumstances. Being stopped by law enforcement agents in any situation can be very stressful, even if you’ve done nothing wrong, so it’s always advised that you remain calm and be as polite as you can, even if you are lawfully refusing to cooperate with their demands.
The ACLU has an entire, printable page on its website dedicated to explaining your rights during various encounters with police officers. If you feel a police officer has violated any of the rules listed here or violated your rights in another way, get their badge number, patrol car number or any other information you can and report it to their department’s internal affairs division or civilian complaint board.