Be very careful when dealing with police
If an interaction with a police officer becomes confrontational, silence is the best course of action, according to at least one criminal defense attorney.
Public Opinion sought expert advice on civilians’ rights in dealing with police after interviewing people who had come up against law enforcement in the past few months both in and out of the borough. From the 86-year-old woman who had a feud with her neighbors and the neighbors became personally aligned with the state trooper, to the off-duty state trooper calling squad cars out after being questioned for parking in a fire lane, Francina Taylor’s is the third story Public Opinion has followed in the past year.
What is the right thing for a citizen to do when faced with the law?
“The best thing is to absolutely say nothing. That’s the best thing to do. And if they decide to charge you, OK, go and see an attorney,” said Jeff Conrad, a criminal defense attorney with Clymer, Musser, Brown & Conrad in Lancaster.
“People have to be very careful when they’re dealing with the police,” he said.
Public Opinion sought to answer several basic questions that were raised by Taylor’s allegations against Chambersburg Police (see related story).
Conrad, a private attorney, was the only person contacted who was willing to discuss the issues.
When asked to discuss general state law as it pertains to several aspects of the story, Pennsylvania attorney general spokesman Nils Fredricksen said it “wouldn’t be appropriate” for his office to comment on Pennsylvania law.
A spokesperson with the governor’s office said the questions should be referred to Pennsylvania State Police, or suggested a call to the attorney general’s office. Phone calls to two state police spokesmen were not returned Wednesday night.
A trial attorney with previous experience as a prosecutor, Conrad said all American citizens should be well aware of their rights when they are dealing with law enforcement.
If her story is accurate, Taylor’s constitutional rights as an American were “trampled,” he said. Conrad said a police officer should not angrily confront a person who has made any type of complaint.
“Police officers have to keep in mind that people have the right to criticize them. They are government entities,” he said. “We entrust them with the ability to separate their anger and their emotions from the job they are out to do. It’s a trust that cannot be violated.”
Still, if a confrontation occurs, silence is the best choice, he said.
A police officer only has to read a person their Miranda warnings if they are questioning them or taking them into custody.
So if someone gets into an argument with a police officer during an encounter, “any word you say, if you’re charged, is going to come in against you,” Conrad said.
Unless a police officer is in the middle of a “hot pursuit,” he or she cannot enter a person’s home without permission or a warrant.
“Any officer that violates the sanctity of somebody’s dwelling, their home, they run a risk of going afoul of the law,” Conrad said.
Police are permitted to go on a person’s property to speak with them, as any other person is allowed, but it becomes trespassing if they are told to leave and they don’t have a warrant.
“If I said ‘stop, don’t come on my property, get off my property,’ they can’t come on any more. At that point they have active notice and before they come back on, they better have a warrant,” Conrad said.
He said that if a verbal argument breaks out between the officer and the resident, who then goes inside, an exchange of words should not warrant entry into the home.
“If it’s simply words being thrown back and forth on a porch, there’s no way an officer can come inside,” Conrad said.
He added that if the resident were to strike the officer or point a gun at the officer, entry would be allowed under the law.
Drinking beer on your porch is not a crime, provided you are of legal age to drink, Conrad said. “I can sit on my front porch and drink a beer if I want to. I’m a private citizen, I pay my taxes. It’s still America. We’re not run by the Gestapo and we can still live as free citizens,” Conrad said.
Jim Tuttle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 262-4754