Answers To Common Questions About Law Enforcement And Your Civil Rights
American law embeds due process rights into the U.S. Constitution, because the founders of our country believed in equal treatment under the law, not using the law as a cudgel to harm people who those in power did not like.
You have civil rights in Alabama before, during and after your arrest. You have rights even if you are convicted and must spend time in jail or prison for the crime you were charged with. I am Hank Sherrod, Civil Rights Trial Lawyer, and I fight for victims of police misconduct. I have assembled answers to some of the most common questions I receive about civil rights violations.
Do I have to cooperate if the police ask me questions?
If a law enforcement officer has stopped you, you do not have to answer their questions without an attorney present. You do, however, need to identify yourself and provide them with your driver’s license or a state ID card.
Does law enforcement have the right to detain me without charging me?
You can be held for a limited amount of time in Alabama before the police must either arrest you or let you go. That time can vary from less than an hour to as long as 48 or 72 hours, depending on the severity of the crime the police officer believes you may have committed and how much of a danger they believe you may be to others.
What evidence do police need to arrest me?
Police officers use three main methods to determine whether to arrest someone in Alabama. They may directly observe you committing an unlawful act, they may have a warrant for your arrest or they may have what is known as “probable cause” to arrest you for a specific offense.
Probable cause is a lower standard than “beyond a reasonable doubt.” The officer must believe they have enough evidence that points in the direction of your guilt to arrest you.
What are warrants and how do they apply to the arrest process?
A warrant is a document issued by a judge that allows a police officer to arrest you for a specific crime. To obtain a warrant, a law enforcement official must go before a judge and show probable cause that you committed the infraction in question.
Most warrants do not expire, particularly for felony charges. Any encounter with law enforcement, including a traffic stop, can lead to your arrest based on the outstanding warrant.
What rights do I have once I’ve been arrested?
Many people understand that you have rights after your arrest, especially those covered by the Miranda warning. Those rights – the right to remain silent during police questioning and the right to an attorney – are guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. In some cases, if police obtain evidence and did not advise you of your Miranda rights, that evidence can be suppressed in court.
In Alabama, in addition to your Miranda rights, you have the right to:
- Be told why you’re being arrested (what charges are being lodged against you)
- Contact an attorney, family member, friend or bail-bondsman as soon as is reasonably possible
What happens after I’m arrested?
After the police book you, you may be allowed your phone call to an attorney or family member. You will be brought before a judge within a short period of time to be arraigned. The judge will read the charges against you and ask you how you plead – guilty, not guilty, or no contest. They will also determine whether you can be let out of custody on your own recognizance or if you will have to pay a bail bond to ensure you return to court when your case is scheduled to be heard.
How do I find an attorney to represent me after an arrest?
If you or your family do not know an attorney to represent you, you can call the Alabama State Bar’s Lawyer Referral Service during weekday work hours at 1-800-392-5660. The service also has an online referral option that is open 24/7.
If you cannot afford an attorney, mention it at the earliest opportunity to the judge, who will determine if you qualify for a public defender to represent you.
Is it legal for law enforcement to search me, my car or my house?
The police can search you, your car or your house in Alabama, but there are limits to what they are allowed to do. If a police officer has obtained a search warrant related to gathering evidence for a specific crime, they must execute the warrant within a relatively short period of time. They must also limit their search to parts of your property that they could reasonably expect to find it. (If you’re accused of stealing a safe, they cannot look in a desk drawer for it.) On the other hand, if they find evidence related to the search warrant in plain view, they are allowed to collect it.
You are allowed to refuse an unlawful search of your car or house. Police are not required to advise you of this fact, and it often helps to have an experienced Alabama civil rights attorney available to help you make the case that the police officer’s intrusion into your space violated your civil rights and/or your due process rights.
What happens if I’m sick or injured while I’m in jail?
You have the right to receive treatment for illnesses or injuries while you are incarcerated. You will need to provide jail or prison officials with a description of your condition and may need to complete a form. If you are not being provided the treatment you need, reach out to a criminal defense lawyer with experience in civil rights violations to press your case.
Who do I contact if I believe my civil rights have been violated by the police or in jail?
If you are in jail and want to pursue a civil rights violation lawsuit, the federal Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1996 requires that you exhaust all administrative remedies before filing a suit. If you’re not in jail or prison currently, consult a knowledgeable civil rights attorney before you file your lawsuit to ensure your case has the best chance of recovering the compensation you deserve.