We're not here to pass judgment on why you wound up in police custody, but if it happens you should know how to comport yourself while getting arrested and once you're in a holding cell. Now that jail authorities can strip search you even if they don't suspect you of carrying contraband, etiquette is especially important. There are all kinds of reasons you could find yourself behind bars: Maybe you got scooped up at a protest such as Occupy Wall Street's May Day action. Maybe you got a ticket carrying an open beer from one party to another, forgot to pay it, then got stopped months later on your bike after the citation had gone to warrant (this happens, trust me). Maybe you're on probation and a cop thought she saw you dealing drugs. Whatever it is, the way you behave can have a lot of bearing on whether this is a 24-hour ordeal that you can dine out on for years, or a 72-hour nightmare that you wish you could forget.
We spoke with Dietrich Epperson, a Queens-based defense lawyer and former prosecutor; Arthur Grix, a retired NYPD officer turned private investigator; Mike Lyons, a former Yonkers police officer turned private investigator; and Max Berger, a frequent Occupy Wall Street protester who's spent two different stints in custody, and compiled their advice into the 10 handy tips below.
Do: Be polite, respectful, and professional with the cops, even if they're being jerks to you. That means staying relaxed, speaking in a measured tone, not swearing. You're all professionals getting a job done. This can be tough to adhere to in a heated situation, but you have to do it or else cops, being the first people you deal with, can delay your journey through the justice system. "Cops are very much into their respect and how they’re treated," Epperson said. "If you start getting belligerent with them, I guess it’s obvious, but they’ll get real nasty and there are all kinds of little things they can do to delay the case. They can wait to fingerprint you, they can also delay transporting you from the precinct down to the courthouse. They can say 'I don’t have overtime authorized so I have to come back on my next shift to process this arrest,' they can wait on speaking to the DA’s office to get the paperwork together." It's not like they want to do that stuff, though, and if you're nice to them while going through the process they probably won't.
Don't: Say anything to the cops that you don't have to. And that includes answering direct questions, even though that might seem like it contradicts the above point about being polite. But there's nothing offensive about asking for your lawyer before any kind of questioning. As Grix points out, "any police officer would tell their son or relative the same thing." The police are allowed to lie to you, to trick you, and to record whatever you say, even if it seems out of context, Grix said, bringing up the "I shot the clerk" scene in My Cousin Vinny. You can be nice about asking for your lawyer. "Just say look, it’s nothing personal but I just want my attorney present," Epperson said.
Do: Answer the questions they need to process you. You should still answer what Lyons calls the "pedigree" questions, including your name, address, possibly your social security number -- anything that goes on a booking form. If you have your identification with you (and you should, you're an adult), show it. "You don’t want to refuse to answer these because they’ll book you as a John Doe and you’ll sit in there longer than you have to," Lyons said. "If you get booked as a John Doe, they’ll wait to get your fingerprints back to ID you."
Don't: Claim you're sick or need medical attention. This is a big one, Epperson said, because if you're sick or need medication or face any other health problems, "they now have a legal obligation to take you to the hospital and that can mean an extra day in jail. So even if you are having a panic attack or you need medication or something like that, try not to request medical care. If you have a family member or friend or something who can bring you medicine that can be good."
Do: Think about the people you might be getting arrested with. In a protest situation, your actions can affect the rest of the group just like the group's actions can affect you. So Berger said it was important to make sure everyone in the group was ready to get arrested. "There are some people who, if they miss work, they’ll get fired," or they may be here illegally and face deportation. "So you need to make sure you’re not unknowingly putting people in arrestable situations."
Don't: Go along with a group that's antagonizing police, if you don't feel like antagonizing police. Sometimes it's part of your activism to yell and scream about how the police are mistreating you. But sometimes you're in a group that's yelling "f--k the cops," when what you mean to say is, "f--k the banks" (presuming you're at an Occupy Wall Street protest). The "f--k the cops" group is probably going to have a harder time with the police, and if you're standing with it, you'll be considered part of it, whether you opened your mouth or not. "If you can walk away, walk away. If you can’t walk away, chant something else," Berger said, suggesting, "This is a peaceful protest." If that doesn’t work, you can go ahead and ask the police what you need to do not to get arrested, and they'll often tell you to stand somewhere else. "I've seen that work and not work," but it's worth a shot if the alternative is an unwanted stint in a holding cell.
Do: Try to make as many friends in the cells as possible. "Share everything you have. Just be as pleasant as you possibly can," Grix said. "There are not many things you can have once you’re in the cell. Say you come in with your baloney sandwich and some guy didn’t get one, you say you know, you can have half of mine." Friends are a good thing to have in a holding cell -- they can help protect you, share information about what's happening outside if they happened to come in later, maybe even take turns sitting if it's crowded.
Don't: Antagonize, confront, pick a fight, or cop attitude with anybody else also in custody. If they're fellow protesters, partygoers, or others you got picked up with, they're also potential allies, and bad blood will spoil that. If they're strangers, you could be asking for even bigger trouble. With any luck you're there for 24 hours or less, so it's not like you have to prove yourself ahead of a long stay. "If you get up and someone sits in your seat, you don’t go and confront them. You don’t say 'I have to use the toilet ahead of you,' " Grix said. Any kind of argument or confrontation could set someone else off and land you in a fight, and if a guard catches you fighting, that'll extend your stay and possibly lead to more charges. "Some guy’s locked up and he’s going to jail for a long time. He’s pissed off. You really don’t want to set him off. You sit in your little corner, mind your own business, and that’s it."
Do: Talk to people, but only if they want to. "It's not a coffee shop," Berger said. "You can sometimes be in there with people who are drunk or mentally or emotionally unstable. A lot of people are at their wits' end. I usually keep my distance and only speak to people who are interested in talking ... You can have amazing conversations but you shouldn’t presume people want to talk to you at all." But don't be scared of talking to people either. "It’s more likely that people will f--k with you if you’re scared. But there’s no reason to be overly loud and talkative, because that’s not where other people are at."
Don't: Call in to work directly from the jail phone. If you have to miss work because of your arrest, you'll need to use the jail pay phone to call and let your boss know. But you probably don't want to tell that boss that you're calling from lock-up, and the odd number on the caller ID might raise questions or give you away. Epperson suggested getting a lawyer or friend to set up a three-way call with you and your work. The number that shows up on the boss's caller ID will be from your friend, not the jail.
Also: This isn't an etiquette matter so much as simple preparedness, but if you at all think you're going to get picked up, say at a protest, you should be prepared. Make sure you have some quarters to call out on the jail pay phone because they'll take your cell phone when you're getting booked in. Write the phone numbers of anybody you might need to call on a slip of paper. Dress in layers, because jail temperatures can really fluctuate, and wear comfortable shoes because you may be standing for a long time in a crowded cell. And if you can, give your cell phone and other valuables to someone before you're taken away, so they can bring it to you when you get out and you don't have to go to the precinct to collect it.
We can't say you'll have fun. Jail sucks, even if you're making the best of it. But hopefully the above tips will help you avoid any extra unpleasantness such as a strip search, billy clubbing, or extra-long stay. Now have fun storming the castle!
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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