Guide to Limits on Police and Law Enforcement Actions in California

PoliceMost of the rules about what the government or law enforcement can and can’t do to you are applicable across the country, so for most of this see our Guide to Laws about Police Conduct in the U.S. For the rules that apply only in California, see below.

If you feel that any your rights (whether listed below or not) have been violated, we strongly urge you to find a California lawyer who specializes in criminal and constitutional law.

Note about terminology: law enforcement in California may be referred to as one or more of the following: police officerspeace officerssheriff deputies, sworn officers.

1. Sidewalks

Are the police allowed to kick me off the sidewalk?

As long as you are not blocking the flow of traffic, you have the right to be on a public sidewalk or to peacefully gather with others on public sidewalks, and police may not unreasonably restrict this right.1U.S. Constitution, 1st AmendmentCox v. Louisiana, 379 U.S. 536, 554 (1965); Frisby v. Schultz, 487 U.S. 474, 480 (1988)

But many cities, including the city of Los Angeles, ban sitting or lying on the sidewalk. See our Guide to Public Spaces for more.

To march or assemble on the streets or roads, you will need to get a permit with the city.

2. Searches

Can police search me any time they want?

No. You have the right to be free from “unreasonable” searches by the government/police of your body or anything you are wearing, your car, your home, and some other personal areas. See our Guide to Laws about Police Conduct in the U.S. for more.

Specifically in California, state agencies may not search ANY business metadata or digital communications (texts, emails, etc) without a warrant. (this does not apply to the federal government)2California Electronic Communications Privacy Act

3. Resisting arrest

Is it illegal to resist arrest?

Yes. In California (as in most states), interfering or resisting a police officer who is trying to arrest you is illegal.3Penal Code Section 148

4. Sex with police officers

Is it illegal for police officers to have sex with someone in their custody?

In California it is illegal for law enforcement to have sex with a person they have arrested or detained, even if consensual.

But many other states do NOT have this law. See the Feb 2018 Buzzfeed story on this.

5. Police Use of Force

When can the police shoot or otherwise use deadly force?

UPDATE: As of August 2019, police officers may only use lethal or deadly force when it is “necessary in defense of human life.”4AB 392; Penal Code Sections 196, 835a The prior standard was that officers could shoot someone if it was “reasonable” to do so.

The new law is known as “Stephon Clark’s Law,” named after the man who was shot and killed by police after they mistook his cell phone for a gun.

6. Other

Do I have to carry ID at all times or show it to police?

In general, in California you are not required to show or present your ID (identification) or drivers license or to carry it with you (unless you are driving of course). Even if a police officer asks for your ID, you do not need to show it. The officer cannot arrest you simply for refusing.5California’s prior “stop and identify” law, Penal Code §647(e) was construed by a court in People v. Solomon (1973) to require “credible and reliable” identification that carries a “reasonable assurance” of its authenticity. Using this construction, the U.S. Supreme Court held the law to be void for vagueness in Kolender v. Lawson461 U.S. 352 (1983)

But it’s generally a good idea to comply with reasonable police officer requests, which can avoid further problems.

Also, if you are being cited for a misdemeanor offense, you ARE required to show ID at that time, otherwise you could be taken into custody.

What can I do if someone unjustifiably calls the police on me but I didn’t do anything wrong?

If a private citizen calls the police on you, knowing that you did not commit any crimes, you may be able to successfully sue that person for “malicious prosecution.” This is also sometimes called “abuse of process” or “abuse of civil process” or “wrongful use of civil proceedings.”6See for example Siebel v. Mittlesteadt, 41 Cal. 4th 735, 740 (2007)

See more on this here.

Is it illegal to dial 911 for non-emergency purposes?

Yes, in California it is a misdemeanor. But if someone is injured or dies as a result of emergency service response to a false call, it is a felony, with a possible sentence of a year or more in jail.7Cal Penal Code 148.3

What are my rights if I am accused of a crime?

See our guide to Rights for People Accused of Crimes.

For the following questions, see our Guide to Laws about Police Conduct in the U.S.

Do I have the right to take video of police?

Can the police simply take my property whenever they want?

What is Stop and Frisk and is it legal?

Can the police arrest me whenever they feel like it?

What are my rights if I am arrested?

Can the government detain someone indefinitely without convicting them?

Is it illegal for the police to harass me or “rough me up”?

What’s the deal with police shootings?


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