Some free advice from Mark Atwood, updated for this year. Last year there was a huge spike in arrests, including one for kidnapping. This is not legal advice, please consult an attorney to understand your legal rights at Burning Man – eg Lawyers For Burners
(Feel free to print out, share, and repost. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.)
How to deal with cops at Burning Man, (2016 update)
by Mark Atwood
Do not consent to a search.
Never consent to a search. Say the phrase “I do not consent to a search.”
The cops are trained to make you flustered and to “take command” of the situation. Or they can be “polite”: “Mind if we take a look around?” Yes, you mind. “I do not consent to a search.”
Even if you have nothing for them to find, ALWAYS say “I do not consent to a search.”
Never consent to a search of your body, of your clothing, of your possessions, of your car, of your truck, of your trailer, of your RV, of your tent, or of your camp. You especially never consent to the search of anyone else’s property.
They can ask the other people in your group or in your car, not just the driver or leader. “Mind if we take a look?” You should all sing the same song: “I do not consent to a search.”
Even if they threaten you with arrest or if threaten to bring a sniffing dog, continue to say “I do not consent to a search”. Even while they are searching you or your stuff, continue to say it. “I do not consent to a search”.
Cops can ask you questions.
They may say things like “We’re just talking”, or “What do you think of …?”, or “Can you help us out?”
You do not have to answer their questions, and probably shouldn’t.
They can ask you where your camp is, and who you are camping with.
You don’t have to answer them.
Never answer any questions about recreational drugs.
Never answer any questions about recreational drugs.
Remember, you never take drugs, you never carry drugs, you never supply drugs, you have no idea where to get drugs, you don’t want any drugs, and you don’t know anyone who does.
That includes cannabis in any form. Cannabis is still illegal on Federal land, even for medical use.
If you are a Nevada resident in November, remember to vote for the Nevada Marijuana Legalization Initiative.
Don’t lead them to your camp.
They may try to get you to lead them to your camp.
They can be very commanding and matter of fact about it, they may say “We’re going to your camp.” They will make it sound as if you have no choice. You do have a choice, and you are going to chose to not to lead them to your camp. Never lead them to your camp.
If they really really insist on you leading them somewhere, then lead them to a Black Rock Ranger outpost.
Keep your tent closed.
Always zip your tent closed when you are not in it. If possible, use screens or sheets to block transparent window screens, so there is no line of sight into your tent. You may want to use a luggage lock to lock the zipper of your tent when you are not in it.
If your tent is zipped shut, they need a warrant to open it, or they need your consent. They probably won’t have a warrant, and you are not going to give them your consent, remember? “I do not consent to a search.”
Your name and your ID.
If they ever stop you, you do have to tell them your correct “wallet name” as it is printed on your official ID. Cops are deeply and profoundly uninterested in arguments about “dead names”. Tell them your name as it is printed on your official ID, driver’s license, or passport. You do not have to show them your ID if they ask to see it. You especially do not have to go to your camp to get your ID for them.
If you are a not a US citizen and are visiting on a visa waiver program, you do not have to carry your passport with you. If you are a resident alien on a visa (e.g. you have a “green card”), you do have to carry your green card with you. Sorry about that.
Being Detained, or “Am I free to go?”.
The magic phrase is: “Am I free to go?”
Keep saying it. As soon as they say “yes”, walk away immediately, swiftly, and without another word. Do not run, just walk.
If they write you a ticket, you must take it. Put it in your pocket, and then you say “Am I free to go?”
If they ever say you are not free to go, you say “Am I being arrested?”. If they say “no you are not being arrested”, you say again “Am I free to go?”. Keep it up as many times as necessary. Yes, it will sound like a stupid kid game, like “stop copying me”, but the game is very real with very real stakes, and this is their game to win, and yours to lose.
If they ever say anything like “you are under arrest”, or ever do anything to make you think you are being arrested, such as them restraining you in any way, you must immediately say the following magic phrase (memorize it!): “I do not consent to any search. I hereby invoke my right to remain silent. I want to speak to my attorney.” And then you SHUT THE FUCK UP.
Do not say anything at all about your arrest or why you may have been arrested, until you are talking in private with your attorney. Not with those cops, not with any other cops, not with any onlookers, not with anyone else who was arrested, not with anyone who is being held with you. Not even with your campmates, or with your friends, or even with your family. Even your spouse. Assume the police car, transport van, and holding cells are bugged. Assume the cops will lie about what you tell them. Assume everyone else will testify against you. You invoked your right to remain silent. Now use it.
The camps with open bars that are giving away booze may ask to see your ID to verify you are older than 21 years. You don’t have to show it to them, but they don’t have to give you free booze either, and they probably won’t, fearing a bust.
If you are giving away booze, including beer or wine, and the person you are about to give it to looks like they could possibly be under 21, you should verify their age by checking their ID. The state liquor cops will be there, trying to bust you with stings.
Even if your camp is not running a public bar, random people will in fact walk into your camp and ask for booze. You will almost certainly have an under-21 plainclothes liquor cop walk into your camp at least once during the week, trying to sting you. Be aware, an alcohol service bust is an expensive way to ruin your burn for your entire camp.
And even if the person asking for a free drink is not a cop, it’s rude and against the burner ethos to beg for a gift.
Who Watches the Watchmen?
While the cops are dealing with you, you need to be memorizing the color and design of their uniforms, and if you can, their nametags and their badge numbers. They are *supposed* to be wearing visible nametags. Yeah, right.
As soon as you get away from the cops, go to Center Camp, or to a Black Rock Ranger outpost, and fill out a Law Enforcement Feedback Form and turn it in.
If you personally with your own eyes see the cops detaining anyone, arresting anyone, or searching anyone or anything, it is an act of Civic Responsibility (Principle 7) and a Gift (Principle 2) to Participate (Principle 9) in the burner community to memorize what you can, and then fill out a Law Enforcement Feedback Form.
When you see the cops in action, you may choose use your camera to record them. The judiciary at all levels has clearly stated that everyone, including you, have the right to record the police, as long as you don’t physically obstruct them. Cops hate it, but too bad.
If the cops tell you to turn off your camera, don’t do it.
They cannot lawfully order you to stop recording, they cannot lawfully order you to delete photos or video, and they cannot themselves lawfully delete any photos or video. If they do any of these things, they themselves are knowingly breaking the law, and that will be very useful in court. If they threaten to arrest you for recording, keep recording.
If you ever see a cop order anyone to stop recording or to delete anything, make sure that goes on the Law Enforcement Feedback Form.
While you are recording them, never get in their way, and stay back 35 feet / 10 meters. That’s tazer range.
The cops claim there are “very few” “undercover” cops at Burning Man. This is a very carefully nuanced untruth.
There are cops at the event who are not “undercover”, but instead are “plain clothes”. This means that instead of wearing duty uniforms and visible badges, they are instead dressed up in costume to look like burners.
They do not have to tell you they are cops when you ask them. You will not be able to “sense” that they are cops, until they bust you. Some of them have been doing this every year for more years than you have come to Burning Man yourself.
People have been busted by a cop who was wearing only sparkles and a miniskirt.
If someone you do not know asks for drugs or offers to trade you anything for drugs, they are a cop. If you met them this year at this Burn, you do not know them.
If you met these two girls a few days ago looking at art out in deep playa, and they are really cute, and they went out dancing with you last night, and they just suggested that if you can supply some “favors”, you all can “party together” in your tent, they are cops. No, really, yes, she and her girlfriend both are cops, and her coworkers are standing by to ruin your whole year.
What if I need “Police Services”?
What if you are lost? Or a camp mate is lost? Or your child is lost? Or you have found a lost child? Or you have found a lost fellow burner who is injured or is unable to take care of themselves? What if you are assaulted? What if something has been stolen? What if someone is hurt? What if you are really too high? What if you just can’t even?
Go to a BLACK ROCK RANGER, or to a ESD volunteer or station, not to a cop. The Rangers or ESD will help deal with the situation, and if the cops are actually needed, the Rangers or ESD can summon them and can deal with them. If the cops are not needed, then the Rangers or ESD can summon the right help for you.
Know what the Black Rock Ranger uniform is, and how it’s different from the cop uniforms. Rangers wear khaki shirts and khaki hats with the Burning Man logo on their hats, on their chests, on their backs, and on their vehicles. ESD have yellow shirts that say “Emergency Services” on them.
Have a great Burn!