5 Tips for Protecting Your Rights at Music Festivals

What to do if you encounter police at a music festival.
Photo adapted from The B's "Police Woman"

Knowledge is key.

The sun is shining, the nights are longer, and every weekend brings a different music festival jam-packed with camping, non-stop music, and the gathering of like-minded individuals from across the country.

Festival season is upon us and it is a mecca for some during these glorious summer months, but it is also a profitable time for police and task forces in the local governing areas. It’s important to remember that although being at a festival can feel like your own personal playground, “drink all day and rock all night, law come to get you if you don't walk right.”

The number of people arrested at music festivals is growing, and you don’t want to be one of them. A weekend of fun that changes your life could do so negatively if slapped with a drug charge. The majority of people arrested at music festivals are charged with drug charges that range from misdemeanor marijuana possession, felony distribution of LSD, trafficking a controlled substance, to knowingly obtaining, possessing, or using a controlled substance. 

So, if you are ready to get away from reality and escape to a festival for a weekend, let’s focus on how to keep it a pleasurable experience and create a more responsible, positive community.

The most important thing to remember is that you have rights, and you need to know them. If you are going to travel with anything illegal, be smart, drive safe, and don’t bring attention to yourself. Make sure all lights are working, registration is up to date, your car is insured, and that there is nothing that would make law enforcement suspicious of you and your vehicle. If you are traveling with other people make sure that they are not drawing attention to themselves and they are educated too.

If encountered by police at a festival here are some important tips:

1. Know your rights.

You have them. Really. In spite of the feeling that we live in some sort of police state, there are certain rules that must be followed or charges simply won’t hold up in court. In any police encounter there must be a reason you were stopped in the first place; the Fourth Amendment ensures that. As a citizen, you can freely go about your business unless the police can show they had reason to believe you were engaged in illegal activity.

2. Keep calm.

If stopped remember to be calm and collected. It can be difficult, especially if you're in possession of something illegal. However, the first few minutes of a police encounter can determine the tone of the rest of your experience. Don't run; don't argue, resist, or obstruct the police, even if you are innocent or police are violating your rights. Keep your hands where they can be seen.

3. Remember key phrases.

You must be respectful, but stand your ground. If stopped by police, assess the situation and simply ask, “Am I free to leave?” It’s completely reasonable (and legal) to ask why you are being stopped and whether you are free to go. If the officer says, “Yes,” calmly and silently walk away and wait to celebrate until you are out of view. If the answer is, “No,” take a deep breath and remain calm. A “no” means that you are being detained and are no longer free to leave but haven’t been arrested. Proceed and ask why you are being detained; you have a right to know.

“Why? What am I being stopped for? Am I under arrest?”

The answer the officer gives at this point is important because the answer may limit what he can later claim the reason for stopping you was. If you are being arrested, do not use the question as an excuse to start arguing. Remember, you want to remain as in control of the situation as you can.

4. Keep quiet.

Chances are, if you are being arrested, there isn’t much that can be said to stop the officer from proceeding. The best thing you can do for yourself is to remain silent. You cannot be punished for refusing to answer questions. Tell the officer out loud, “I want to exercise my right to remain silent,” or, “I want my lawyer.” Don't say anything, sign anything, or make any decisions without a lawyer. Anything you say once you are being detained can be used against you in court, and it will be. By keeping quiet you eliminate the chance of incriminating yourself or saying something that can’t be taken back.

Remember, officers do not need to read you your Miranda rights, so do not answer any questions like, “Whose backpack is this?” because the answer will be used against you later. You're always free to remain silent, and police may not hold your silence against you as evidence of wrong-doing. This is your Fifth Amendment right. Be prepared to have the officers get annoyed or frustrated; they can make you feel like you are a criminal for remaining silent and not making their job easy. Do not let yourself get bullied into speaking with them.

5. Do not consent to a search.

This is where it gets tricky. Many people believe that once the police are there they have a right to search you and your belongings, however, that is not the case. Show your ID if asked and do not consent to a search, especially if you know you are in possession of something illegal. Do not expect an officer to tell you of your right to not consent; anytime you consent you are naively waving your constitutional rights! Unless you were doing something in the open, or the officer smelled drugs or saw a hand-off of some sort, he has no probable cause to search you, though police do have the right to “pat down” your clothing if they suspect a weapon.

If the police are asking your permission to search you or your property, it usually means they know they are performing an illegal search. The pressure will be on once you exercise this right and many police use scare tactics, try to make you feel like a criminal, or make you think if you cooperate it will be okay. You can expect to hear something like, “If you have nothing to hide, why can’t we search your stuff?” If you refuse consent but the officer searches you anyway and finds illegal items, your lawyer can file a motion to suppress — or throw out — the evidence in court. Always refuse the search, and remember that you can't get in trouble for asserting your rights properly!

A festival is a unique situation for police and searches. On the back of most festival tickets there is something that states generally that by purchasing a ticket or wristband you automatically consent to any search on the property. However, this only applies to the festival and its hired security — not the police. Private security doesn’t have to abide by the Fourth Amendment unless it is acting together with the police in some way, for example, using the same communication system. Security can certainly require that you be searched once you enter the premises, but just because you are on private property it is not the end legally. Although festival security does not always have to abide by the Fourth Amendment, the police do, giving you the right to say no to searches.

I have been in legal trouble before and felt bullied, pressured, and just plain scared, which led to me say and do things that made the situation worse. It’s easy to think that if you cooperate or just go along with what the police want the outcome will change, but it won’t. Do not give up your ability to practice and flex your rights, ever. Young people and minorities especially must be particularly aware of these rights due to systemic bias in law enforcement. Go enjoy the culture and experience that music festivals have to offer, but remember to be safe, be smart, and know your rights!

Do you have any other tips for protecting your rights at music festivals? Leave them in the comments below and don't forget to subscribe for more helpful articles.

Eileen Mellon is a Virginia Commonwealth University graduate and freelance reporter with a passion for journalism and meeting new people. Curious by nature, she lives her life traveling, writing, being outdoors, and exploring the opportunities every day has to offer. She currently resides in Richmond, Va.