Police Powers & Rights: The Legal Side of Law Enforcement

Under US constitutional law, police power refers to the capacity of the various American states to regulate behaviour and enforce order within their jurisdiction. The idea behind granting police these powers is aimed at improving the health, morals, safety, and the general welfare of the residents of those states.

Police car

The legislative body in each territory defines police powers in order to determine the specific public purposes that need to be addressed by this legislation.

The Tenth Amendment to the United States Constitution outlines that the powers, which have not been granted to the Federal Government, are reserved to either the people or the states. This means that the Federal Government does not hold absolute power as most of these powers are, in fact, reserved to the various state governments, while others are reserved to the people. Globally, police power is required to enforce laws, and many police officers belong to organisations, such as Queensland’s police association in Australia, that aim to ensure police officers are protected and that they carry out their duties to the letter of the law.

Let’s take a look at some of your rights so you can better understand your position if you are dealing with the police in the future.

Understanding Your Constitutional Rights

As a citizen, it’s essential that you take a little time to understand your constitutional rights. In most interactions with the police, the first, fourth, and fifth amendments are the most important to be aware of. The First Amendment gives you the right to freedom of speech and the freedom to protest peacefully. What’s more, it also allows you to record your interactions with the police so long as you are not preventing the police from doing their jobs.

The Fourth Amendment protects citizens against unreasonable searches and seizures, while the Fifth Amendment provides you with the right to remain silent.

Variations From State-To-State

Police powers can vary from one state to the next, so it is good to look into any state-specific statutes that might apply to you. You can simply look up your state constitution and search for any local state statutes that might provide you with some additional protection in specific situations.

Some key police powers that tend to differ from state to state include, but are not limited to, excessive force, consent to search unreasonable search and seizure, recording police, and what your rights are when a police officer stops you. Most states have “know your rights” documentation readily available to keep citizens informed and up-to-date.

Behave Correctly When Stopped

Being unexpectedly pulled over or stopped by the police can be frustrating, alarming, and unnerving. Whether you have done something wrong or not, it’s not uncommon to feel intimidated by the situation alone. Remember that if you are pulled over, it’s important to stay calm, be polite and courteous and avoid volunteering any information that could potentially incriminate you down the line. This is where exercising your right to remain silent under the Fifth Amendment comes into play.

You Do Not Have To Consent To A Search

Police officers will often ask simple questions such as “do you mind if I have a look around?”, “may I look in your bag?” or “do you mind if my partner looks in your trunk?” Taking a casual approach, instead of formally asking, “Do I have your consent/permission to search you?” is a common tactic of the police as you are more likely to grant permission. However, it’s important to be aware of these types of questions as once you have given consent, verbal or otherwise, there’s no going back.

Remember, under the Fourth Amendment; you have the right to say no. Just be sure to clearly assert your denial for any search to take place.

Knowing Your Rights Will Help To Keep The Police Honest In Their Work

If you have any interactions with the police, make sure that you understand your rights and that you stay calm through the ordeal. If a police officer violates your rights, avoid resisting and, instead, save it for court, where you can argue that whatever the officers did was both unconstitutional and unlawful.

When citizens know the legal side of law enforcement, it helps to keep the police honest. With an honest police force that we can truly believe in, we will all feel safer going about our daily business.


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