The Legal Corner is a regular blog post brought to you by Daniel McCarey and Allison McPherson of Youth Represent. Youth Represent provides free legal services to over 1,000 young people in NYC every year, including to patients at the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center as part of our medical-legal partnership. Now, they’re bringing their legal knowledge directly to you in regular posts about legal issues that impact teens and young adults.

At Youth Represent, most of our clients are young people of color. Many have been stopped by police officers due to racial bias and often experience harassment as a result.

Most of them know that when they’re stopped by the police, they have rights. But figuring out whether and how to exercise those rights in the moment can be much more complicated.

Below, we break down some of those rights, and how NYC’s new Right to Know Act may change how young people interact with the police.

The Right to Know Act aims to address harassment from police officers and make it easier to complain if your rights are violated. It has two main components.

First, NYPD officers must now carry business cards that have their name, rank, shield number and command on them. On the back, these cards tell you how to file a complaint about the officer and request body cam footage from your interaction with them. Their body camera must be on if they search you. Officers are required to give their business card to you only under certain circumstances (though you can request it at any time).

Second, if a police officer wants to search you but does not have legal justification, they are required to tell you that your consent is needed for the search, and that you do not need to give your consent.

Understanding exactly when Right to Know comes into play can be a bit complicated.

Here’s a breakdown of several different levels of police interactions to help make it easier to understand.

Level 1 Encounter

If a police officer has a “request for information,” like asking where you’re going, what you’re doing or where you’re coming from, you can request the officer’s business card. However, the officer is NOT required to give it to you. This is considered a minor encounter and police officers CANNOT restrict your freedom of movement. You may ask, “Am I free to leave?” to know if you are being detained.

Level 2 Encounter

If an officer asks more accusatory questions, like “Do you have drugs?” or “Are there any weapons in here?”, or asks for your consent to search, then they are required to give you their card and explain the purpose of the interaction. They must ask for your consent to search you, your bag, your phone, your car, or your home, and let you know that you do not need to give consent. You are free to walk away. You may ask, “Am I free to leave?” to know if you are being detained.

Level 3 Encounter

This is when a police officer has reasonable suspicion that you have committed, are committing or are about to commit a crime. If this is the case, they can legally restrict your movement (i.e. stop you from leaving) and even pursue you. You are not free to leave, and an officer may frisk you for any weapons only if they fear for their safety. In most cases, the officer must obtain your consent to search you, your property, your car, or your home. Officers must identify themselves, give an explanation for the encounter, and give you their business card.

Level 4 Encounter

When an officer has probable cause that a crime has been committed, and that you committed that crime, you may be arrested and fully searched after being arrested. The officer does not need an arrest warrant or a search warrant at this level.

If you are arrested, only provide basic information—your name, date of birth, address and contact information. Do NOT make any statements about what happened. It is your right to remain silent, to not make any statements, and to ask for a lawyer.

So, how does this affect young people’s interactions with the NYPD?

Everyone has rights when stopped by the police, but deciding when and how to use them can be tricky. Ultimately, it’s up to you whether or when you decide to exercise your rights. Sometimes, you may decide that it’s easier and safer to do what a police officer tells you to, so you can go about your day. That’s completely ok.

If you’re stopped for a request for information (again, a simple question like, “where are you going?”) and decide you do want to exercise your rights, don’t escalate the situation by yelling or cursing. Instead, calmly and gently ask them, “Am I under arrest?” and then, “Am I free to go?” If you want, you can ask the officer for a business card. Remember, however, that they do not have to give it to you.

If you think a police officer has violated your rights, you can file a complaint with the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB). Again, whether you want to go through this process is completely up to you. Keep in mind that even if your complaint doesn’t make a difference on its own, hundreds of people filing complaints against a single officer may lead to real disciplinary action. Ultimately, nothing will change if no one speaks up.

As a reminder, here’s a basic rundown of the rights anyone in the United States has when they’re stopped by the police:

  • Police may stop and detain you only if they have a reasonable suspicion that you have committed, are committing or are about to commit a crime.
  • If you’ve been stopped by a police officer, you can ask if you are under arrest, or if you’re free to leave. If you’re not free to leave, you have the right to know why you’re being detained.
  • You have the right to remain silent. You do not have to talk to the police, even if you’re under arrest or in jail. However, it is not enough to simply remain silent and quiet. You must say, “I’m choosing to remain silent.”
  • You should not make any statements. But if you do, you can stop talking at any time and ask for a lawyer.
  • The police must read you your rights before they interrogate you.

Hopefully, knowing your rights and how you can take action if they’re violated helps give you a sense of control—whether you decide to exercise them or not.

To learn more about your rights when interacting with the police, check out the ACLU’s Know Your Rights page.

Daniel McCarey is a graduate of the City University of New York (CUNY) Law School. He is dedicated to advocating for marginalized and oppressed communities within the framework of collective liberation. Daniel has experience in a number of legal and social services including, but not limited to, special education law, criminal law, benefits, and healthcare.

Allison McPherson is a paralegal with Youth Represent, with prior experience in social work and children’s mental health. She is passionate about partnering with young people who are disenfranchised to foster a sense of empowerment in a broken system. Allison approaches client work with a trauma-informed lens and motivational interviewing techniques.