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What To Do If You're Caught With Drugs at a Festival

Timothy Norris
This dude's actually drug free. But he still knows his rights
Hate to say it, but some of you at Coachella (which starts today!) are going to be approached by police officers assuming you have drugs. Well, you just may, but guess what? You still have rights, man.

See also: Everything You Need to Know About Coachella

Cameron Bowman is here to help! As a music festival lover and attorney at San Jose firm Valencia, Ippolito & Bowman, he's a legal expert on this kind of thing. Bowman, aka The Festival Lawyer, talks below about the best ways to protect yourself if you're approached by the fuzz at a festival.

1. Your medical marijuana card doesn't mean shit

Sure, your "glaucoma" (or even your hemorrhoids) has earned you the right to legally purchase marijuana at any number of pot shops in L.A., but that does not mean you can legally bring it into the festival. Coachella makes it very clear on its website that wacky tobaccy purchased with a medical card is as illegal as stuff purchased from the black market.

"People need to realize," says Bowman, "that a medical marijuana card is a recommendation from a doctor that you're allowed to use marijuana to treat an ongoing physical or mental condition. It's not the same as a prescription, and under federal law it's still illegal." Since Coachella is a private event, it also means that the organizers can set any rules they like about what is and is not allowed inside.

This scenario becomes even less legal when those with a medical marijuana card purchase weed with the intent to share it with friends or sell it to strangers. (Both of these acts are considered "distribution" and are felony offenses.) "There are real limits on what you can do," Bowman says. "If you are transporting or possessing marijuana for purposes of sale, not only is it illegal, but it's what called a non-alternative felony, which means that a judge can't reduce it to a misdemeanor, you're not eligible for drug diversion programs, and it's basically a felony on your record for the rest of your life."

Long story short, marijuana and other controlled substances are definitely not allowed inside the festival, although some of you are going to sneak them in anyways in your sweaty pants. Just remember...

 

2. Coachella is crawling with undercover cops

If you're doing anything illegal, don't be blatant about it.

Credit: Nanette Gonzales
"No officer, you cannot search my headdress."

3. Memorize a few key phrases

"If a cop comes up and asks to see your ID," Bowman says, "the first question out of your mouth should be, 'Am I being detained?' Then, 'Why? What am being stopped for? Am I free to go, or am I under arrest?'"

Memorize this. Repeat it out loud: "Am I being detained? Why? Am I free to go, or am I under arrest?"

With these questions, you establish whether you are being arrested and transform any subsequent detention into a scenario in which the officer has to justify stopping you. Somebody looking at that explanation later will then make a decision about whether the officer had a good reason to stop you, which might make your case easier to defend.

 

4. Do not give the authorities consent to search you

"I strongly advise people to do this," says Bowman. "Most [scenarios] happen where the person is approached [by a cop], and it's a sort of a nebulous situation and a casual conversation where everything then rolls downhill and the next thing you know that person is being searched and drugs are being discovered. That's what you don't want to do."

What you do want to do is respectfully tell the police officer, "I'm not giving you consent to search my property." If they ask what you have to hide, again say, "Officer, I'm sorry I'm not giving you consent to search my backpack."

At this point, they can still search you if they have probable cause, but what you've done with your statements is make them declare their reason for doing so.

"Police are always going to try to reframe any sort of encounter with you as a consensual encounter," Bowman says. "It's so common in police reports. If you are from the start unambiguously saying, 'Officer am I under arrest? Am I free to leave? I don't want to make a statement ot you at this time, I'd like a lawyer, and no I'm not giving you consent to search my property or belongings,' they may search your stuff always, but they have to justify to a court later why they did."

Credit: Nanette Gonzales
Undercover cops? Well, we just don't know, do we?

5. Document the situation.

"It's well known that there is a percentage of cops that will just make it up, how the whole encounter happened," Bowman says. The most effective way to combat this is to have your friends whip out their cell phones and videotapes the entire event. If the cops try to shut this down, you are entitled to say, "Officer, I'm not interfering with this process or you arresting this person, but I am going to document what is happening."

Bowman doesn't recommend that the person interacting with authorities record the situation themselves, so be a pal if your friend ends up getting questioned.

 

6. Remember that whole 'right to remain silent' thing?

The police can use anything you say as evidence against you up until the point at which you are actually arrested. (This is why it is critical to immediately clarify whether or not you are being detained.) In any case, it's best to remain silent from the start. Authorities are not obligated to immediately read you your Miranda rights, but just know that you don't have to say anything in response to their questions other than "I'm exercising my right to remain silent. I'm not giving any statements at this time. I'd like a lawyer." At this point, you'll likely be arrested, but you've left options open for your attorney to defend you.

Ultimately, Bowman says, the most important thing is knowing your rights by heart and being of sound enough mind to courteously but forcefully protect them if and when you are approached by authorities. "You can and should assert your own rights in a respectful way," Bowman says. "There's almost no scenario I can think of where talking to the police helps you."

Now go have fun, you crazy kids.




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