As you gather at protests this summer, make sure you learn more about what your rights are, how to exercise them, and what to do when your rights are violated. We put together this guide to help prepare you in your calls for change.   
Being stopped by police is a stressful experience that can escalate quickly. We want to be clear: the burden of de-escalation does not fall on private citizens – it falls on police officers. However, you cannot assume officers will behave in a way that protects your safety or that they will respect your rights even after you assert them.   
You may be able to reduce risk to yourself by staying calm and not exhibiting hostility toward the officers. The truth is that there are situations where people have done everything they could to put an officer at ease, yet still ended up injured or killed.  
Here’s what you need to know before heading to a protest in New Jersey.   

What is the role of police officers at protests? 

Ideally, the role of police at protests should be to help protect your right to protest. 

However, you cannot assume officers will behave in a way that protects your safety or that they will respect your rights even after you assert them. There are many examples of police abusing their authority and improperly interacting with protesters. It is very important to know your rights if police officers do not follow the law. 

Make sure to know your protest rights.  

How should I interact with police officers at protests? 

We know that this isn’t always easy, but to the extent possible:  

  • Stay calm.  
  • Make sure to keep your hands visible.  
  • Don’t argue, resist, or obstruct the police, even if you believe they are violating your rights.  
  • If you can safely do so, point out that you are not disrupting anyone else’s activity and that the First Amendment protects your actions. 
  • If you think you’re being detained, ask if you are free to leave. If the officer says yes, calmly walk away.  

Can police officers search demonstrators?  

For a police officer to search you, they are required to have reasonable, articulable suspicion to stop you and probable cause to believe that you possess contraband.  

If police have reasonable suspicion that you are involved in or are about to commit criminal activity, they can stop you.  

If they have reasonable suspicion that you are armed, they can frisk your outer clothing to search for weapons. 

Can police officers search bags and containers without probable cause? 

Yes, if you are entering what has been marked as a secure area, like a subway station, an airport, or a stadium, for example.  

But you can choose to refuse the search and not enter the secure area. Otherwise, police can only search bags if they have probable cause that it contains contraband, weapons, or evidence of illegal activity. 

Can undercover police officers legally monitor protest activities? 

Generally, yes, police may monitor protestors’ internet postings, attend public protests, record or photograph demonstrators, or attend planning meetings to learn about planned protest activities. 

Can police officers issue orders of dispersal for a protest? 

A dispersal order should be law enforcement’s last resort to manage a protest. Generally, police may not break up a gathering unless there is a clear and present danger of riot, disorder, interference with traffic, or other immediate threat to public safety. 

If officers issue a dispersal order, they must provide a reasonable opportunity to comply, including sufficient time and a clear, unobstructed exit path. 

Police officers are required by law to provide clear and detailed notice of a dispersal order before protestors may be arrested or charged with any crime. These include:  

  • How much time they have to disperse. 
  • The consequences of failing to disperse. 
  • What clear exit route to follow. 

What if I’m arrested at a protest?  

For a police officer to arrest you, they must have probable cause to believe that you have committed a crime or offense. Once arrested, police officers may search you. 

If you are under arrest, you have a right to ask why, although police officers do not need to tell you. Otherwise, say you wish to remain silent and ask for a lawyer immediately. Don’t say anything or sign anything without a lawyer. You can provide general information such as your name, address, etc. 

You have the right to make a local phone call, and if you’re calling your lawyer, police officers are not allowed to listen. 

You never have to consent to a search of yourself or your belongings. If you do explicitly consent, it can affect you later in court. 

What should I do if I feel my rights have been violated?  

If you can safely do so, try to find officers’ badge numbers or patrol car numbers. Write down everything you remember as soon as possible. Try to find witnesses and get their names and phone numbers. If you are injured, take photos of the injuries, but don’t delay seeking medical attention. Documenting this information will assist you in filing complaints or finding an attorney for assistance.  

Below are steps you may wish to take if you feel that your rights have been violated during a protest. However, if you are facing criminal charges, you should not take any of these steps without first consulting with your defense attorney.  

  • File a complaint with the internal affairs department of the police department where your rights were violated 
  • Contact a private attorney. You may contact your county bar association for a referral. The New Jersey State Bar Foundation also provides a list of government and legal resources. Visit this page for more information on what resources exist.  
  • If you believe that a police officer or department discriminated against or harassed you because of your race, religion, national origin, gender or sexual orientation, disability, or gender identity or expression, file a complaint with the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights
  • Tell us about it through our intake system

The resources on this site are meant to educate the public on legal rights in New Jersey. It is not legal advice and is not in any way intended to be a substitute for legal advice or representation. Information on this page may have changed since it was written. Attorneys consulting these resources should make certain the law is still valid.