This article by Scott Morgan originally appeared April 9, 2012 in Alternet.org.
Each year, close to a million Americans are arrested for possessing marijuana, and many millions more are targeted and searched by police on suspicion of being a marijuana user. It’s an incredible waste of limited law enforcement resources, and the experience of being harassed, arrested, and slapped with a criminal record isn’t exactly getting rave reviews from anyone either. Heck, even cops are getting sick of this idiocy.
I’ve spent several years teaching the public how to deal with police. I’ve heard more than my share of horror stories from people who froze up when confronted by the cops and soon found themselves in the back of a squad car. When that happens, chances are it wasn’t because they hurt someone, but rather, because they possessed a small amount of marijuana.
Now that half the nation is in favor of legalizing marijuana, there is hope that we’ll soon see a day when none of us are placed in handcuffs for having a little pot in our pockets. But until then, those who use marijuana –- whether to treat an illness, or simply as part of a healthy lifestyle –- should have a plan prepared just in case they find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The following tips are designed to help responsible adults avoid becoming statistics in our nation’s enormous, expensive and embarrassing war on marijuana.
1. Don’t Consent to Searches
This is a pretty straightforward concept, but a lot of people get hung up on worrying how the officer will react. Don’t. Just be cool and keep in mind that agreeing to a search will automatically lead to your arrest if you’re in possession of marijuana. Refusing will often prevent the search, but even it doesn’t, you’ll have a better chance of winning the case once you get to court.
2. Don’t Let Them Into Your House
If you enjoy marijuana, then you probably don’t want police officers coming inside your house. Unfortunately, cops are quite good at convincing you to let them in. They might make it sound like you don’t have a choice, or simply try to convince you they’re not looking to get anyone in trouble. Whatever they say, your answer should stay the same: No. Unless they have a search warrant, they can’t come in without your permission. Your best move is to politely explain that you’re not letting anyone in without a warrant.
3. Ask if You’re Free to Go
The longer your police encounter lasts, the greater the risk of something going wrong. If you refuse a search, officers will often say, “okay, wait here,” or they might even threaten to “call in the dogs.” What they won’t tell you is that they may not actually have any legal authority to make you stay. Police need evidence (reasonable suspicion) to justify detaining you, and refusing a search doesn’t count.
If you don’t feel like hanging out with the cops, ask if you’re free to go. If they say “yes,” leave immediately. If they say “no,” then you’re being detained and they will need to prove in court that they had a legal reason to detain you. Even if they search you and find marijuana, the fact that you asked to leave before the search will improve your chances in court, because any evidence found during an illegal detention is not admissible. The legal concepts here get a bit complicated, but just remember that after you refuse a search you should also ask if you can leave.
4. Don’t Do Dumb Stuff in Public
When the temptation to put fun before common sense takes over, the consequences can be quick and vicious. Knowing your rights can increase your odds of avoiding trouble, but if officers actually observe you committing a crime, the only tip I can give you is to call a good lawyer. If police see, smell, or hear evidence of criminal activity, that’s all the grounds they need to search and arrest you.
Remember that good herb reeks, literally spilling a cloud of probable cause in every direction. Lighting up in cars, parks, dorms and other exposed areas is just asking for trouble. Some regions are more lenient than others, but don’t push your luck, and don’t assume it’s okay just because you see others doing it. I’ve seen people get popped for pot in Berkeley of all places, so remember there are no drug-war-free zones in America yet. Be cool, and watch your back.
5. Don’t Snitch on Yourself
It’s tempting to think that honesty will win you some points with police. Heck, they’ll even promise to cut you a break in exchange for a straight answer. But coming clean is a mistake you’ll regret seconds later when they order you to put your hands behind your back. Most people don’t think pot is a big deal, so it’s easy for the cops to convince you they don’t care about it either. But it’s their job to bust you for pot, and they’re allowed to lie if necessary to trick you into cooperating. If they didn’t care, they wouldn’t ask.
If police are asking you incriminating questions, just politely tell them you choose to remain silent until you’ve spoken with a lawyer.
This is the most helpful advice I can give for protecting yourself from the tricks police use to bust millions of Americans for marijuana. But remember that knowing your rights and watching your back will only get you so far. Escaping unscathed from a scary police encounter also requires controlling your emotions and remaining calm and cool.
Maintaining a relaxed attitude is the key to pulling off tactics such as refusing searches, asking if you’re free to go, and declining to answer incriminating questions. Even if you do everything right, there’s still a chance you’ll end up in court fighting for your freedom, but your odds of winning will be far greater if you’ve calmly asserted your rights throughout the encounter.
I’d like to hear any strategies I might have missed. What’s your favorite tip for preventing a pot bust?
- NY Gov Cuomo Looks To Decriminalize Pot (snspost.com)