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If police approach and question you

  • Police can lawfully ask you questions if you’re in a public place. You don’t have to answer their questions.
  • You should ask “am I free to leave?” If the officer says yes, you can walk away calmly. If the officer says no, ask “why” but don’t leave.

If police stop you

  • What is a “stop”? When police act in a way that would make a reasonable person feel not free to leave, for example, by ordering you to stop or physically halting you, that is considered a “stop” under the Fourth Amendment.
  • To clarify whether you are being questioned, stopped, or arrested, ask “am I free to go?,” and, if the officer says no, ask “am I under arrest?”
  • Is the stop legal? Police can stop you only if they have “reasonable suspicion” that you’re involved in a crime. Reasonable suspicion must be based on specific facts. For example, police can stop you if you match the description of someone who just committed a crime. Police cannot stop you for a vague reason (because you just “look suspicious”) or for a biased reason (because you are, for example, Black or transgender).
  • Police can ask questions. They even can lie to extract information. You don’t have to answer their questions and can say “I don’t want to talk to you” or “I don’t want to answer that.”
  • If police ask for ID: MPD officers cannot force you to show ID (except for a driver’s license if you’re stopped while driving). However, federal immigration officers can force you to show immigration documents and disclose your immigration status.
  • If police ask to search or take a look at your person or belongings, you don’t have to consent and you should say “I don’t consent to this search.” Note that even if you refuse to consent, officers may still have authority to search you (see next section).
  • If you are arrested, ask to speak with a lawyer.

If police frisk you

  • A frisk occurs when the police pat or sweep the outside of someone’s clothes to check if they have weapons.
  • Police can lawfully “frisk” you if you consent, or even without your consent if they have “reasonable suspicion” (that is, a specific, fact-based reason to believe) that you have a weapon.
  • Police can’t reach into your pockets and clothes or squeeze your body or pocket contents while frisking, unless they feel something like a weapon, or something else that is obviously illegal, based solely on their touch. Without your consent or “probable cause” that you have committed a crime, police can’t go beyond a frisk to search your bags, pockets, or underclothes.
  • You should repeat, “I don’t consent to this search,” but to stay safe and avoid escalating the situation, you should physically cooperate with the officers.

If your rights are violated

  • Ask for, and write down, the officer’s name and badge number. Other helpful information includes: the officer’s patrol car number the name and phone numbers of any bystanders, and any pictures of or medical records about any injuries you suffer.
  • File a complaint with the D.C. Office of Police Complaints (OPC). Its hotline number is (866) 588-0569. The complaint is due to OPC within 90 days of the incident.
  • If you are arrested, ask to speak with a lawyer.


When interacting with the police, you shouldn’t lie, physically resist, run away, or threaten to file a complaint. These types of acts could escalate the situation and/or result in your arrest. You can’t fight police misconduct on the street: it’s safer to comply and challenge the officer’s actions later.

To request legal assistance from the ACLU-DC, go to, email, or leave a message at 202-601-4269.

Thanks to:

  • Black Lives Matter DC
  • Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100)
  • #KeepDC4Me
  • Law 4 Black Lives DC
  • Stop Police Terror Project DC
  • Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs