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A College Student’s Guide to Interactions with the Police

Let’s face it, the college scene is fraught with temptations to either violate the law, or to be in close proximity with those who do (the classic, “wrong place, wrong time” scenario). Many of these temptations–underage drinking for example–will attract the attention of law enforcement officers (remember: underage drinking in Ohio carries with it a maximum possible sentence of 180 days in jail.). While college students have temptations, they also have constitutional rights to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. However, the college student’s rights tend to follow the maxim of “if you don’t use them, you lose them,” meaning that if you do not know how to lawfully exercise your rights, you will probably waive them.

Here are some simple guidelines to preserve your constitutional rights in encounters with the police. Following these guidelines will improve your position should you be arrested or charged with a crime.

  • Always be respectful – What does this have to do with preserving your rights? First, hostility toward officers can be perceived as aggression that in turn can give the officers some basis, real or perceived, to detain, search and/or arrest you; whereas a respectful approach may give law enforcement no additional evidence against you–hence forcing your release. Second, officers almost always have input with prosecutors in terms of what type of plea deal gets reached in your case should the police charge you; the prosecutor is almost always going to ask “was he/she cooperative, or a jerk?” You can guess which of these two categories gets the better deals;
  • Ask if you have a choice – “Can I ask you some questions?” “Can I search your wallet?” “Mind if I peek around?” These are but a few of the questions that officers will ask you. In reply, here is what you should ask them: “Do I have a choice?” If their answer is yes, then your answer is probably (a respectful) no. If their answer is no, then say, “well, if you are telling me I that don’t have a choice, then I will comply.” If, for some reason, the officers are lying to you about your choice, then you have set up a great coercion issue for a later motion to suppress.
  • Ask to speak to a lawyer first – You may or may not be able to depending on which stage of the investigation you are in, but your should clearly, unequivocally and respectfully invoke your right to counsel. If you are told no, say nothing of substance (or ideally at all) until you speak with an experienced criminal defense attorney (ideally one with a 24-hour action line, like Rittgers & Rittgers).

Note: these rules are somewhat flexible–particularly in drunk-driving cases where the consequences of refusing an officer’s request can be significant–but as general rules they will almost always get you the best outcome in both the short- and long-term.

College is a time to develop book smarts and street smarts, but if you find yourself in a legally compromising situation, contact the attorneys at Rittgers and Rittgers.


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