Jackson, Wyoming is a small mountain town, unique in that the world-class skiing and proximity to Yellowstone National Park brings both copious tourist dollars and transplant residents to an otherwise very isolated locale.
Two years ago, I (along with a fellow Colorado attorney) witnessed this event first-hand. We had made the drive to Jackson to celebrate a mutual friend’s 30th birthday, which seemed a fairly innocuous (and decidedly non-criminal) reason to be in town.
Our friend threw a party at his house; nothing I would describe as even borderline law-breaking, just a bunch of people in a house, dancing and drinking beer together, toasting a friend’s passage into his thirties. Our friend had warned us that there may be trouble from an overzealous local cop who had it out for him (they had had words the weekend before, when the officer was out of uniform), but it seemed so far-fetched that I had ignored it – what were the chances that a cop would show up at a party, based solely on a personal beef? The party roared on, until, around 11, I got a tap on the shoulder: the aforementioned officer was outside, demanding to talk to someone.
The other attorney and I walked outside, together, to talk to the officer. At this point, I was still envisioning an officer behaving professionally…was still under the impression that officers are somehow beholden to a code of professional responsibility.
His gun was holstered, but his attitude was not: Officer [redacted] was acting more drunk than anyone I had yet encountered at the party. Thrusting his chest forward, he bumped first me, then the other attorney, en route to explaining that he was “not leaving until he had talked to the ‘birthday boy.'” If we didn’t let him into our friend’s house, he said, he was “well within his rights” to bust in, based on “probable cause,” and if he had to do it the “hard way,” it would be much worse than if we just let it happen. Still, for all his aggression, he seemed unwilling to simply blow past us. Ultimately, he left…stood up at the gate, as it were. He parked around the corner, and spent the remainder of the night watching a birthday party through the front window and hoping that somehow, this group of people would make a mistake that would allow him to enter their house in search of something incriminating that would allow him to fulfill his personal vendetta.
When blue lights ignite behind you, you stop. You coast to the side of the road, put your car in park, cut your engine, and roll your window down. You do these things because you are a good citizen; the police are the authority, you are the authoritized.
The officer that appears at your window is clean cut, well spoken, and professional-seeming (after all, he is wearing a uniform). You give him your license and registration, because he is wearing a uniform, and a gun, and the road is dark, and because you are a solid citizen with nothing to hide and you are required, by law, to provide them this limited information.
He shines a flashlight in your face, and starts asking rapid-fire questions: where are you coming from, why are you out so late, do you know why I pulled you over, anything in the car I should know about, have you been drinking?
Your first reaction is “my license is valid, my insurance is paid and my registration is up-to-date, so why do I need to answer these questions?”
You don’t, and you shouldn’t. If you’ve done nothing wrong, you owe the state no explanation. If you have committed a questionable act, you still owe the state no explanation; in fact, your right as an American is to not give the government any information that they can later use against you. Make no mistake, when the polite officer at your window starts asking questions that seem to be fishing, he is looking for information to use against you.
Courts have utilized various forms of mental and legal gymnastics (artifice and stratagem, anyone?) en route to arriving at the same conclusion: the police can lie to you and, to a limited extent, coerce and pressure you. Because they can, they will. If you fall for these tricks, you are deemed to have voluntarily waived the rights you have been pressured and coerced out of. What this means for you is that you must hold tight to them in the face of police pressure, or you will lose them. Be polite, but be firm. If asked if you will consent to a search of your vehicle, say no, in no uncertain terms. If the officer had legal justification to be searching, he wouldn’t be asking, he would be searching. The same goes for your home: if the police are asking to enter, they don’t have justification to do so. Exercise your right to be free from an unreasonable search. Just say no.