We recommend you enter the NLG's national hotline number (888-654-3265) into your cellphone (if you have one) and keep a copy handy. This information is not a substitute for legal advice. You should contact the NLG or a criminal defense attorney immediately if you have been visited by the FBI or other law enforcement officials. You should also alert your relatives, friends, co-workers and others so that they will be prepared if they are contacted as well.
Disclaimer: This booklet is not a substitute for legal advice. You
should contact an attorney if you have been visited by the FBI or other
law enforcement officials.
You should also alert your relatives,
friends, co-workers and others so that they will be prepared if they are
contacted as well.
NLG National Hotline for Activists Contacted by the FBI
You Have the Right to Remain Silent: A Know Your Rights Guide for Law Enforcement Encounters
What Rights Do I Have?
or not you're a citizen, you have rights under the United States
Constitution. The Fifth Amendment gives every person the right to remain
silent: not to answer questions asked by a police officer or government
agent. The Fourth Amendment restricts the government's power to enter
and search your home or workplace, although there are many exceptions
and new laws have expanded the government's power to conduct
surveillance. The First Amendment protects your right to speak freely
and to advocate for social change. However, if you are a non-citizen,
the Department of Homeland Security may target you based on your
Standing Up For Free Speech
government's crusade against politically-active individuals is intended
to disrupt and suppress the exercise of time-honored free speech
activities, such as boycotts, protests, grassroots organizing and
solidarity work. Remember that you have the right to stand up to the
intimidation tactics of FBI agents and other law enforcement officials
who, with political motives, are targeting organizing and free speech
activities. Informed resistance to these tactics and steadfast defense
of your and others' rights can bring positive results. Each person who
takes a courageous stand makes future resistance to government
oppression easier for all. The National Lawyers Guild has a long
tradition of standing up to government repression. The organization
itself was labeled a "subversive" group during the McCarthy Era and was
subject to FBI surveillance and infiltration for many years. Guild
attorneys have defended FBI-targeted members of the Black Panther Party,
the American Indian Movement, and the Puerto Rican independence
movement. The NLG exposed FBI surveillance, infiltration and disruption
tactics that were detailed during the 1975-76 COINTELPRO hearings. In
1989 the NLG prevailed in a lawsuit on behalf of several activist
organizations, including the Guild, that forced the FBI to expose the
extent to which it had been spying on activist movements. Under the
settlement, the FBI turned over roughly 400,000 pages of its files on
the Guild, which are now available at the Tamiment Library at New York
What if the police stop me on the street?
Ask if you are free to
go. If the answer is yes, consider just walking away. If the police say
you are not under arrest, but are not free to go, then you are being
detained. The police can pat down the outside of your clothing if they
have reason to suspect you might be armed and dangerous. If they search
any more than this, say clearly, "I do not consent to a search." They
may keep searching anyway. If this happens, do not resist because you
can be charged with assault or resisting arrest. You do not have to
answer any questions. You do not have to open bags or any closed
container. Tell the officers you do not consent to a search of your bags
or other property.
What if police or agents stop me in my car?
your hands where the police can see them. If you are driving a vehicle,
you must show your license, registration and, in some states, proof of
insurance. You do not have to consent to a search. But the police may
have legal grounds to search your car anyway. Clearly state that you do
not consent. Officers may separate passengers and drivers from each
other to question them, but no one has to answer any questions.
What if FBI Agents or Police Contact Me?
What if an agent or police officer comes to the door?
not invite the agents or police into your home. Do not answer any
questions. Tell the agent that you do not wish to talk with him or her.
You can state that your lawyer will contact them on your behalf. You can
do this by stepping outside and pulling the door behind you so that the
interior of your home or office is not visible, getting their contact
information or business cards and then returning inside. They should
cease questioning after this. If the agent or officer gives a reason for
contacting you, take notes and give the information to your attorney.
Anything you say, no matter how seemingly harmless or insignificant, may
be used against you or others in the future. Lying to or misleading a
federal agent is a crime. The more you speak, the more opportunity for
federal law enforcement to find something you said (even if not
intentionally) false and assert that you lied to a federal officer.
Do I have to answer questions?
have the constitutional right to remain silent. It is not a crime to
refuse to answer questions. You do not have to talk to anyone, even if
you have been arrested or are in jail. You should affirmatively and
unambiguously state that you wish to remain silent and that you wish to
consult an attorney. Once you make the request to speak to a lawyer, do
not say anything else. The Supreme Court recently ruled that answering
law enforcement questions may be taken as a waiver of your right to
remain silent, so it is important that you assert your rights and
maintain them. Only a judge can order you to answer questions. There is
one exception: some states have "stop and identify" statutes which
require you to provide identity information or your name if you have
been detained on reasonable suspicion that you may have committed a
crime. A lawyer in your state can advise you of the status of these
requirements where you reside.
Do I have to give my name?
above, in some states you can be detained or arrested for merely
refusing to give your name. And in any state, police do not always
follow the law, and refusing to give your name may make them suspicious
or more hostile and lead to your arrest, even without just cause, so use
your judgment. Giving a false name could in some circumstances be a
Do I need a lawyer?
You have the right to talk to a
lawyer before you decide whether to answer questions from law
enforcement. It is a good idea to talk to a lawyer if you are
considering answering any questions. You have the right to have a lawyer
present during any interview. The lawyer's job is to protect your
rights. Once you tell the agent that you want to talk to a lawyer, he or
she should stop trying to question you and should make any further
contact through your lawyer. If you do not have a lawyer, you can still
tell the officer you want to speak to one before answering questions.
Remember to get the name, agency and telephone number of any
investigator who visits you, and give that information to your lawyer.
The government does not have to provide you with a free lawyer unless
you are charged with a crime, but the NLG or another organization may be
able to help you find a lawyer for free or at a reduced rate.
If I refuse to answer questions or say I want a lawyer, won't it seem like I have something to hide?
you say to law enforcement can be used against you and others. You can
never tell how a seemingly harmless bit of information might be used or
manipulated to hurt you or someone else. That is why the right not to
talk is a fundamental right under the Constitution. Keep in mind that
although law enforcement agents are allowed to lie to you, lying to a
government agent is a crime. Remaining silent is not. The safest things
to say are "I am going to remain silent," "I want to speak to my
lawyer," and "I do not consent to a search" It is a common practice for
law enforcement agents to try to get you to waive your rights by telling
you that if you have nothing to hide you would talk or that talking
would â€œjust clear things up." The fact is, if they are questioning
you, they are looking to incriminate you or someone you may know, or
they are engaged in political intelligence gathering. You should feel
comfortable standing firm in protection and defense of your rights and
refusing to answer questions.
Can agents search my home or office?
do not have to let police or agents into your home or office unless
they have and produce a valid search warrant. A search warrant is a
written court order that allows the police to conduct a specified
search. Interfering with a warrantless search probably will not stop it
and you might get arrested. But you should say "I do not consent to a
search," and call a criminal defense lawyer or the NLG. You should be
aware that a roommate or guest can legally consent to a search of your
house if the police believe that person has the authority to give
consent, and your employer can consent to a search of your workspace
without your permission.
What if agents have a search warrant?
you are present when agents come for the search, you can ask to see the
warrant. The warrant must specify in detail the places to be searched
and the people or things to be taken away. Tell the agents you do not
consent to the search so that they cannot go beyond what the warrant
authorizes. Ask if you are allowed to watch the search; if you are
allowed to, you should. Take notes, including names, badge numbers, what
agency each officer is from, where they searched and what they took. If
others are present, have them act as witnesses to watch carefully what
is happening. If the agents ask you to give them documents, your
computer, or anything else, look to see if the item is listed in the
warrant. If it is not, do not consent to them taking it without talking
to a lawyer. You do not have to answer questions. Talk to a lawyer
first. (Note: If agents present an arrest warrant, they may only perform
a cursory visual search of the premises to see if the person named in
the arrest warrant is present.)
Do I have to answer questions if I have been arrested?
If you are arrested, you do not have to answer any questions. You
should affirmatively and unambiguously state that you wish to assert
your right to remain silent. Ask for a lawyer right away. Do not say
anything else. Repeat to every officer who tries to talk to or question
you that you wish to remain silent and that you wish to speak to a
lawyer. You should always talk to a lawyer before you decide to answer
What if I speak to government agents anyway?
if you have already answered some questions, you can refuse to answer
other questions until you have a lawyer. If you find yourself talking,
stop. Assert that you wish to remain silent and that you wish to speak
to a lawyer.
What if I am treated badly by the police or the FBI?
down the officer's badge number, name or other identifying information.
You have a right to ask the officer for this information. Try to find
witnesses and their names and phone numbers. If you are injured, seek
medical attention and take pictures of the injuries as soon as you can.
Call a lawyer as soon as possible.
What if the police or FBI threaten me with a grand jury subpoena if I don't answer their questions?
grand jury subpoena is a written order for you to go to court and
testify about information you may have. It is common for the FBI to
threaten you with a subpoena to get you to talk to them. If they are
going to subpoena you, they will do so anyway. You should not volunteer
to speak just because you are threatened with a subpoena. You should
consult a lawyer.
What if I receive a grand jury subpoena?
jury proceedings are not the same as testifying at an open court trial.
You are not allowed to have a lawyer present (although one may wait in
the hallway and you may ask to consult with him or her after each
question) and you may be asked to answer questions about your activities
and associations. Because of the witness's limited rights in this
situation, the government has frequently used grand jury subpoenas to
gather information about activists and political organizations. It is
common for the FBI to threaten activists with a subpoena in order to
elicit information about their political views and activities and those
of their associates. There are legal grounds for stopping ("quashing")
subpoenas, and receiving one does not necessarily mean that you are
suspected of a crime. If you do receive a subpoena, call the NLG
National Hotline at 888-NLG-ECOL (888-654-3265) or call a criminal
defense attorney immediately.
The government regularly uses grand
jury subpoena power to investigate and seek evidence related to
politically-active individuals and social movements. This practice is
aimed at prosecuting activists and, through intimidation and disruption,
discouraging continued activism.
Federal grand jury subpoenas are
served in person. If you receive one, it is critically important that
you retain the services of an attorney, preferably one who understands
your goals and, if applicable, understands the nature of your political
work, and has experience with these issues. Most lawyers are trained to
provide the best legal defense for their client, often at the expense of
others. Beware lawyers who summarily advise you to cooperate with grand
juries, testify against friends, or cut off contact with your friends
and political activists. Cooperation usually leads to others being
subpoenaed and investigated. You also run the risk of being charged with
perjury, a felony, should you omit any pertinent information or should
there be inconsistencies in your testimony.
will offer "use immunity," meaning that the prosecutor is prohibited
from using your testimony or any leads from it to bring charges against
you. If a subsequent prosecution is brought, the prosecutor bears the
burden of proving that all of its evidence was obtained independent of
the immunized testimony. You should be aware, however, that they will
use anything you say to manipulate associates into sharing more
information about you by suggesting that you have betrayed confidences.
front of a grand jury you can "take the Fifth" (exercise your right to
remain silent). However, the prosecutor may impose immunity on you,
which strips you of Fifth Amendment protection and subjects you to the
possibility of being cited for contempt and jailed if you refuse to
answer further. In front of a grand jury you have no Sixth Amendment
right to counsel, although you can consult with a lawyer outside the
grand jury room after each question.
What if I don't cooperate with the grand jury?
you receive a grand jury subpoena and elect to not cooperate, you may
be held in civil contempt. There is a chance that you may be jailed or
imprisoned for the length of the grand jury in an effort to coerce you
to cooperate. Regular grand juries sit for a basic term of 18 months,
which can be extended up to a total of 24 months. It is lawful to hold
you in order to coerce your cooperation, but unlawful to hold you as a
means of punishment. In rare instances you may face criminal contempt
What should I do if I want to contact DHS?
talk to a lawyer before contacting DHS, even on the phone. Many DHS
officers view "enforcement" as their primary job and will not explain
all of your options to you.
What Are My Rights at Airports?
NOTE: It is illegal for law enforcement to perform any stops, searches,
detentions or removals based solely on your race, national origin,
religion, sex or ethnicity.
If I am entering the U.S. with valid travel papers can a U.S. customs agent stop and search me?
Yes. Customs agents have the right to stop, detain and search every person and item.
my bags or I be searched after going through metal detectors with no
problem or after security sees that my bags do not contain a weapon?
Even if the initial screen of your bags reveals nothing suspicious, the
screeners have the authority to conduct a further search of you or your
If I am on an airplane, can an airline employee interrogate me or ask me to get off the plane?
pilot of an airplane has the right to refuse to fly a passenger if he
or she believes the passenger is a threat to the safety of the flight.
The pilot's decision must be reasonable and based on observations of
you, not stereotypes.
What If I Am Under 18?
Do I have to answer questions?
Minors too have the right to remain silent. You cannot be arrested for
refusing to talk to the police, probation officers, or school officials,
except in some states you may have to give your name if you have been
What if I am detained?
If you are detained at a
community detention facility or Juvenile Hall, you normally must be
released to a parent or guardian. If charges are filed against you, in
most states you are entitled to counsel (just like an adult) at no cost.
Do I have the right to express political views at school?
school students generally have a First Amendment right to politically
organize at school by passing out leaflets, holding meetings, etc., as
long as those activities are not disruptive and do not violate
legitimate school rules. You may not be singled out based on your
politics, ethnicity or religion.
Can my backpack or locker be searched?
officials can search students' backpacks and lockers without a warrant
if they reasonably suspect that you are involved in criminal activity or
carrying drugs or weapons. Do not consent to the police or school
officials searching your property, but do not physically resist or you
may face criminal charges.