What to Do If Arrested at a Protest

Anna Blake Patrick

Social justice awakenings continue to spur action in our nation and in Portland, Oregon. Because so many of our nation’s political demonstrations have quickly turned to riots, preparing for the possibility of being stopped or arrested by law enforcement is critical. Being prepared includes knowing your rights as well as how to handle an in-custody situation.

You’re Organizing or Attending the Protest

  • You may protest in areas called “traditional public forums”: highways, parks, and sidewalks. You have the right to speak out on other public property, as long as you do not block entry to government buildings or interfere with other buildings’ purposes.
  • Know that counter-protesters have just as many rights as you have. Police will treat counter-protesters and protesters equally because both groups are exercising their use of the First Amendment.
  • Some protests may require permits, including: marches or parades that intentionally block traffic, rallies requiring sound amplifying equipment, or rallies over a certain size at most public parks or plazas. Police cannot deny your permit.
  • You do not need a permit to protest or march on sidewalks or streets. If you do not have a permit, police officers may ask you to move to the sidewalk in order to let traffic through.
  • Your rights as a protest photographer or videographer are the very same as if you are the protest organizer or attendee.
  • Police officers may not confiscate photographs or video without a warrant, nor may they delete data.
  • Police cannot legally detain you without reasonable cause or suspicion that you have or are about to commit a crime. Remember that taking photographs is your right under the First Amendment. Legal photography does not constitute reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.
  • If you believe your rights have been violated, write down everything you can remember, including the officers’ badge and patrol car numbers, the agency they work for, and information about yourself, such as your phone number and name.
  • With this information, file a complaint with the agency’s internal affairs division or civilian complaint board.
  • Police may not break up a rally or gathering unless there is clear danger of riot, interference with traffic, destruction of property, disorder, or other immediate threat to public safety.
  • Police should inform individuals of a dispersal order in clear detail, including how much time they have to disperse, the consequences of failing to do so, and clear exit routes to follow, before they may be arrested or charged with any crime.

You Are Stopped or Arrested by the Police While Protesting

  • Stay calm. Shouting or panicking can be perceived as signs of hostility, which will probably further escalate the situation. Keep your hands visible. Do not argue, resist, or obstruct the police in any way, even if you believe they are violating your rights. Remind yourself that the First Amendment protects all of your lawful actions, and if you’ve done nothing wrong, the police cannot legally arrest you. You have the right to remain silent and should not agree to or sign anything without a lawyer. 
  • Remember that you do not have to give consent to be searched, but police may pat down your clothing if you are suspected to have a weapon. Police also may legally search you after an arrest.
  • You have the right to make a local phone call. If you are calling a lawyer, police are not allowed to listen.
  • If your case is dismissed at arraignment, you will receive a “no complaint” (arrest on your record). Under Oregon law, there is a one-year waiting period before an uncharged incident (a “no complaint” of the arrest) can be set aside or expunged.

The safest way to participate in a protest is to educate yourself beforehand and remain calm if in contact with police officials. Remember that if you’ve done nothing wrong, you should have nothing to fear. Continue to support the Black Lives Matter movement, climate change awareness, women’s rights, equity, and many others. Together we can make a change.

For more information, visit: https://www.aclu.org/know-your-rights/protesters-rights/.