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Knowing Your Rights: American Like the Fourth of July

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July 1, 2010

(Originally posted on The Seminal.)

Taking a road trip this summer? You might want to have the Constitution riding shotgun.

Back in April, Arizona passed a nasty racial profiling law that will require police officers to demand immigration or citizenship papers from anyone they stop, detain or arrest who they suspect may be in the country unlawfully. What constitutes “reasonable suspicion” that someone is unlawfully in the U.S.? Don’t look to the law for guidance; there is none.

Though the law is not scheduled to go into effect until the end of July (and the ACLU and others are in court trying to keep it from ever becoming effective), Arizona’s history of racial profiling is cause for concern. The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office — under the direction of the notorious Sherriff Joe Arpaio — is already under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice.

That’s why more than 30 ACLU offices across the country — from Maine to Alaska to Texas — have issued travel alerts encouraging residents of their states to make sure that, if they travel to Arizona, they understand their constitutional rights during law enforcement encounters. And the ACLU’s handy new pocket card — “What to Do If You’re Stopped by Police, Immigration Agents or the FBI” (also available en español) — is here to help.

The information applies to all people in all states — regardless of race, ethnicity, religion or citizenship status — so whether or not your summer travel plans include Route 66 to Flagstaff, you should check it out. There’s even a mobile version you can get on your phone (as long as you have a web browser). Here’s a quick taste of what you’ll find:


  • You have the right to remain silent. If you wish to exercise that right, say so out loud.
  • You have the right to refuse to consent to a search of yourself, your car or your home.
  • If you are not under arrest, you have the right to calmly leave.
  • You have the right to a lawyer if you are arrested. Ask for one immediately.
  • Regardless of your immigration or citizenship status, you have constitutional rights.


  • Do stay calm and be polite.
  • Do not interfere with or obstruct the police.
  • Do not lie or give false documents.
  • Do prepare yourself and your family in case you are arrested.
  • Do remember the details of the encounter.
  • Do file a written complaint or call your local ACLU if you feel your rights have been violated.

As we celebrate the Fourth of July, what better way to honor our Constitution than to learn the rights it guarantees to all of us?