By Emily Wright

You’re driving down the road, eager to get to where you’re headed, when you see the red and blue flashing lights swirling in your rearview mirror. Do you know the rights you have before a law enforcement officer stops you?

Every citizen should know their rights when stopped in their vehicle or approached by the police, as well as what they are expected to do to help clear the matter up and be helpful to the men and women on the police force.

“There are many different scenarios and reasons for being stopped on the road,” said Nelson Cameron, a Shreveport civil rights attorney. “Whether it be for a traffic violation, criminal activity or suspicions of criminal activity, the person stopped generally has the right to know why they are being stopped and they can ask the officer about the nature of the detainment. Sometimes the officer may ask you to step out of the vehicle because of safety concerns. It may be that they are concerned about a weapon or illegal drugs being in the vehicle. Sometimes they want to separate the driver and the passenger(s) just to put some distance between everyone for a safety reason. It just depends on the situation.”

For those Shreveport and Bossier City citizens who have weapons in their vehicles, Cameron advises them to tell the officer there is a weapon in the car if they are stopped.

“Being cooperative and friendly with an officer can go a long way when stopped or approached. You might even be surprised by what the officer will do to help you out,” Cameron said. “Although there are cases where confrontations occur because of criminal activity, it is a good idea to be respectful to the officer. Citizens can also remind officers that they have a right to do something. For example, if they are protesting in front of a courthouse, an officer may tell the citizens to put the signs down, but they can tell the officer that they have a right to protest as long as they are abiding by the law. In cases like this it is good for citizens to know their rights and speak up for themselves.”

According to Shreveport Police Officer Brian Michael, most of the time, traffic stops go without a hitch, but there are times when the situation intensifies due to combative attitudes or drivers under the influence. He said most of the people stopped are friendly but there are motorists who are disrespectful and berating, which makes the stop difficult. Most likely, the drivers stopped were having a bad day and decided to take out their anger on the officer.

It is helpful to police for drivers to keep their hands on the wheel when they are stopped because the officers must assume there is a gun in the car because of the open carry law in Louisiana. Police usually run the serial numbers on the gun to make sure that

it is not stolen. If it is not, they return the gun to the driver and they can be on their way. However, if it is stolen, it will be returned to the owner of the gun, and it’s very likely the driver will be arrested or other actions will be taken.

It is important for citizens to know their rights so that if they ever find themselves in a situation with the police, they can act confidently and calmly and exercise their privileges.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) website has a “Know Your Rights” section that outlines what rights U.S. citizens have when they are stopped in their vehicle by the police, if they are arrested and what to do if they feel their Constitutional rights were violated:

If you are stopped by police while in your vehicle:

  • Stop the vehicle at a safe place as soon as possible, turn off the engine, roll down the window and keep your hands on the steering wheel.
  • Show the officer your driver’s license, registration and proof of insurance only if he/she asks to see them.
  • You have the right to refuse consent of a vehicle search if the officer asks to look inside your vehicle. However, if police have reason to believe that your car contains evidence of a crime, then your car can be searched without your consent.
  • Both the drivers and passengers in the stopped vehicle have the right to remain silent. A passenger can peacefully leave if the officer grants that person permission; if not, then that person must stay.

If you are arrested:

  • Even though you may think the arrest is unfair, do not resist the arrest.
  • You have the right to remain silent, so you can refuse to answer any questions that you are asked, but you must tell the officer(s) that you wish to remain silent.
  • You should also ask for a lawyer immediately. If you cannot afford to have a lawyer represent you, then you are granted one by the law. Do not say or do anything without a lawyer.
  • You have the right to make a local phone call.
  • Memorize the phone numbers of your family and, if applicable, your lawyer. Also, make emergency plans if you have anyone in your care, like children, or if you take medication.
  • If you ever feel that your rights were violated, file a written complaint with the agency.

Bill Pederson, PhD, professor of political science at LSU Shreveport, said that in the past, before the 1966 Supreme Court decision of Miranda v. Arizona, local police forces used to do what they wanted to do regarding suspects. Since then, citizens under arrest or in custody for questioning have the Constitutional right to be silent and the right to an attorney so that they do not answer questions that can later be used to incriminate themselves.

“After that, then the gun culture kicked in,” Pederson said. “Citizens and police officers are caught in an explosive bind that our gun and drug culture has made almost impossible to resolve to either side’s satisfaction. I recall a police officer I had in class say that on his last day of duty (before retiring), he pulled someone over, and in the process of talking to the driver, he saw a gun on the seat next to the driver. There was no incident but that suggests how dangerous a police officer’s job is on a daily basis. It’s life threatening.”

Although there are situations involving illegal activity and drunk driving, or if drivers are simply having a bad day with work or family, it is best for both the citizens and police officers to be as respectful and helpful to one another as possible because both want to remain safe.

Citizens can search online for more information about the rights they have when stopped, approached or arrested by a police officer. There are also free classes and events offered at the Shreveport Police Department (SPD) and Caddo Parish Sheriff’s Office where citizens can learn about operating standards, firearm safety and more.

For more information about the classes offered by the SPD and the Caddo Parish Sheriff’s Office, visit shreveportla.gov and caddosheriff.org.