GUIDE: How to deal with cops at Burning Man

Burning Man aerial. Image; Wikipedia Commons.
Burning Man aerial. Image: Wikipedia Commons.

Adult language alert.

By Mark Atwood, reposted from Reddit

(Feel free to print out this document, share it with your friends and campmates, and repost it to social media. This document is licensed under CC-BY-4.0. I am not a lawyer. This document is not legal advice. If you are ticketed, cited, or arrested, consult with your attorney. There are attorneys who specialize in helping Burners.)

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 think you have nothing for them to find, even if you think you have done nothing wrong, even if you think it will smooth things over in the moment, do not consent to a search.

Never consent to a search of your body, of your clothing, of your possessions, of your car, of the truck of your car, of your trailer, of your RV, of your tent, of your boxes, or of your camp. And of course, never consent to the search of anyone else’s property.

They can ask the other people in your group, camp, or car, not just the driver or leader. “Mind if we take a look?” You must 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”. If you consent to a search, you will regret it.

They may search anyway. Once they start, no matter what you do or say, they will probably trash your stuff and dump it out on the playa. Do not give them consent once they start. Do not help them. Do not open or unlock anything for them.

Being Questioned.

Cops can ask you questions.

They can 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 you probably shouldn’t.

They can ask you where your camp is, and who you are camping with. You do not have to tell them, and you probably shouldn’t.

Recreational drugs.

Never answer any questions about recreational drugs.

You never use drugs, you never have drugs, you never provide drugs, you have no idea where to get drugs, you do not want drugs, and you do not know anyone who does.

That includes cannabis in any form in any amount. Cannabis is still not legal on BLM land, even for medical use. Having a medical card from any state is not a defense. The Nevada personal use possession law is not a defense. If you get a “ticket” or a “citation” for possession of cannabis and you don’t successfully contest it it is still a “conviction”. It’s not “just a ticket”. If you get one of those “tickets”, get a lawyer. There are lawyers that specialize in helping burners.

If you have a legal prescription to a Schedule II drug, such as Adderall, Ritalin, Oxycontin, Methadone, Xanax, or Klonopin, keep your pills in their correct prescription bottle and locked somewhere secure, or directly on your person. Never leave any prescription pill or bottle out.

If the cops ask you about your prescription, you do not have to answer them, and you probably shouldn’t. Anything not printed on the prescription bottle they are not lawfully allowed to ask about it, and you shouldn’t tell them.

Do not lead them to your camp.

They may try to make you lead them to your camp.

They can be very commanding and matter of fact about it. They may say “We are 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 choose to not to lead them to your camp. Never lead them to your camp.

If they really insist on you leading them somewhere, then lead them to a Black Rock Ranger outpost, and then introduce them to your good friends the Black Rock Rangers. You should always know where a Black Rock Ranger outpost is at all times, anyway.

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Keep your tent or RV closed.

Always keep your tent or RV closed when you are not in it. If possible, use opaque screens or sheets to block transparent windows so there is no line of sight into your tent. Reflective panels and reflective cloth are also good for keeping the heat of the sun out of your tent or RV.

You may want to use a luggage lock to lock the zipper of your tent when you are not in it. If your tent or RV is shut, they are supposed to need a warrant to open it, or they are supposed to need your consent. A lock reinforces that. Never open any lock for them, make them break it open. 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.” They may search your tent or RV anyway. Do not give them consent once they start, and do not help them once they start. Once they start, they will probably trash your stuff, no matter what you say.

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. 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 demand to see it. You especially do not have to go to your camp to get your ID for them. Never do that.

If you are driving a car or truck, including an art car, you must keep your driver’s license with you, and you do have to give it to the cop on demand if you get stopped. This does not include passengers. If you are a passenger, and a cop stops the vehicle, you do not have to show your ID, and you probably shouldn’t.

If you are not a US citizen and you are visiting on a visa waiver, you do not have to carry your passport with you. If you are a resident alien (e.g. you have a “green card”), you do have to carry your green card with you and you do have to show it if they specifically ask to see it. You do NOT have to tell them if you are a US citizen or not.

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 and without another word. Do not run, walk.

If they write you a ticket, you must take it. Put it in your pocket, and then 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 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.

Being Arrested.

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 invoke my right to remain silent. I want to speak to my attorney.” And then YOU SHUT THE FUCK UP.

Do not try to talk your way out of the arrest. Do not say anything at all about your arrest 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 with your campmates, not with your friends, not with your family. Even your spouse. Assume all police cars, transport vans, and cells are bugged. Assume the cops will lie about what you say to anyone. Assume everyone you meet while you are being held will testify against you and that they will lie about what you say. Your best defense will be being able to testify that you never said anything to anyone. You invoked your right to remain silent. Use it.

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There are attorneys who specialize in helping Burners.

Alcohol.

The camps with open bars that are giving away booze may ask to see your ID to verify you are older than 21. You don’t have to show it to them, but they don’t have to give you free booze either.

The state liquor cops will be there, and they will try to sting your camp. They check most camps and they check every bar. If you are giving away booze, even if it’s only 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. An alcohol service bust is an expensive way to ruin your burn for your entire camp. If you have a large or well known bar, you may want to set up a recording camera. Liquor cops have been known to lie.

A photocopy of an ID is not a defense. Taping a photocopy of an ID to a mug is worthless as a defense for the server. If you are serving drinks, you may choose to honor a photocopy of an ID, but you probably shouldn’t.

All vehicle drivers MUST be completely sober and MUST NOT have an alcoholic drink within arm’s reach. If you camp or art project is using a truck or other vehicle during build week, there MUST NOT be an open container of alcohol at all anywhere in the car or cab. When you are driving in at Arrival, and out again at Exodus, there MUST NOT be an open container of alcohol in the car, not even held by a passenger, not even in the back seat. You may have to be hard-assed with your passengers about this. Do not celebrate arrival with a drink until you have actually parked and shut down your car. DUI is illegal as well as stupid and dangerous, and the cops take a zero tolerance policy about it.

This shouldn’t need saying but it does: you and your passengers must strictly obey DUI laws on the long drive in and then the drive back home. Too many camps have had to build and burn with people missing or days late because they got popped for DUI, and too many burners are dead or crippled because of DUI. Not just alcohol. Cannabis may now be effectively legal in Nevada and most of the US, but driving while stoned is just as illegal and is just as dangerous. Please, not once, not ever. And if the cops pop you for DUI, you will get zero sympathy from other burners.

Who Watches the Watchmen?

While the cops are dealing with you, you need to be memorizing the color and design of their uniforms and memorizing their name tags. They are supposed to be wearing visible name tags while in uniform. Yeah, right.

As soon as you get away from the cops, promptly go to Center Camp or to a Black Rock Ranger outpost to fill out a Law Enforcement Feedback Form and immediately turn it in. The feedback form is also available on the Burning Man website if you have internet access from your phone or at a camp.

If you personally with your own eyes see the cops detaining anyone, arresting anyone, or searching anyone or anything, do the same thing: memorize what you can in the moment and then fill out and turn in a Law Enforcement Feedback Form as soon as you can.

Each morning, all the feedback forms are read out loud in a meeting with the police leadership and the event leadership. When the cops dump your stuff out onto the playa ground, make sure you describe that in the feedback form. The Bureau of Land Management leadership have strong opinions about the other cops MOOPing their land.

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Your camera.

When you see the cops, you may choose to use your camera to record them. The Judiciary at all levels has clearly stated that everyone, including you, has the right to record the police. All cops know that rule, and they hate it, but too bad.

They cannot lawfully order anyone to stop recording. They cannot lawfully order anyone to delete photos or video. They cannot lawfully delete any photos or video themselves. If they do, they themselves are knowingly breaking the law and that will be very useful in court. If a cop tells you to turn off your camera, keep recording. If they threaten to arrest you for recording, keep recording. While you are recording them never get in their way and stay back at least 35 feet / 10 meters.

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.

“Undercover” cops.

The cops claim there are very few “undercover” cops at the event. 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 uniforms or visible badges they are dressed up 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. Some of them have been doing this every year for more years than you have come to the event yourself. Some of them actually are burners. But on or off duty, they are still always cops.

People have been busted by a cop who was wearing only sparkles and a miniskirt. Cops have been seen dancing nearly naked on top of speakers next to mainstages, pointing out the use of cannabis to uniformed cops circling the dancing crowd.

If someone you do not know asks for drugs or offers to sell or trade for drugs, they are a cop. If you met them this year at this Burn, you do not know them. If someone sits down next to you and gets around to asking about drugs, they are a cop. If you meet this cute nearly naked burner out dancing, and you make eyes with each other, and go walking out together into the playa, and they say that they are starting to come down, and do you know where they can get anything to bring them up again so that you two can go party in your tent… No, really, yes, they are a cop, and their coworkers are eagerly standing by to ruin your life.

What if I need “Police Services”?

What if you are lost? Or a camp mate is lost? Or a child is lost? Or you have found a lost child? What if you have found someone who is injured or who is unable to take care of themselves? What if you are assaulted? What if something is stolen? What if someone is hurt? What if you find someone who is dangerously out of sorts? What if you just can’t even?

Go to a BLACK ROCK RANGER or to an ESD VOLUNTEER. If the cops are actually needed, the Rangers or ESD can summon the cops on their radios and can deal with the cops so you don’t have to. 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 various cop uniforms. Rangers wear khaki shirts and khaki hats with the Burning Man logo on their hats and on their chests and on their backs and on their vehicles. ESD have yellow shirts that have “Emergency Services” printed on them.

Black Rock Rangers are not cops. They really are there to help you, no kidding.

Have a great Burn!

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5 Comments

  1. It’s this kind of article that furthers people’s idea of Burning Man as a bunch of elitists who feel they are above the law and respect for their hosts. There should be more articles on disposing of their garbage properly, less about how to get away with breaking the law.

    • This article is relevant to everyone everywhere. It is about knowing and exercising your consitutional rights. It is about protecting your personal property and self. Not about how to get away with breaking the law.

      I know someone who spent the night in jail for having medication for a condition which prevents his eyes from dilating properly. Another friend was ticketed for open-container because she had a box of empty glass beer bottles on the floor in the back seat to take to the recycle bin. I myself have had personal property destroyed by a cop during a baseless search. Each of these was a result of consenting to a search where the cop was simply looking for something to ticket or arrest. There are countless other documented cases of cops making false statements and planting evidence to make the arrest. Cops may not have explicit quotas, but if they don’t issue enough tickets or make arrests they are percieved as not doing their job. IT IS THEIR JOB to find something to nail you on. Period.

      A cop may ONLY legally search your car if they have some other facts or evidence that you’re involved in a crime, or to do an inventory while impounding it. They may only search your other personal property with a warrant describing exactly what is to be searched or if they see a crime being committed. They may only search your body if they believe you have a weapon or to do an inventory if you are being arrested. …OR if you consent… That’s it.

      You would not let a total stranger root through your things or ask you personal questions. Why would you let a cop who has NO MORE LEGAL AUTHORITY than anyone else do it either? Especially when the only purpose is to find ANYTHING, no matter how small, to arrest or ticket you with.

      You’ve probably heard it said, and it is true, that each of us unknowingly breaks several laws every week. Don’t give them an excuse to nail you for something you may not even know you did. Or to damage your property with no consequences.

      Yes, there are good cops but there are also bad cops. And you never know which ones you are dealing with until the interaction is over. And even the good cops don’t have YOUR best interest in mind unless you are physically injured. Even the good cops are trained to be suspicious first and helpful later. Being considerate doesn’t even come into the equation for most of them.

      The cop who searched my car, broke things, and literally ripped my suitcase apart, was probably one of the “good ones” but he was more concerned about trying to find something than being careful with my property. And I’m a clean cut, middle class, white guy. Imagine if I “looked like a hippie” or was a minority.

  2. My first take on this instructional article is not good. Are we encouraging MORE folks to become naively resistant ? How about, obey the laws. It’s the only reason the human race has “rules”…so we can all get along.

    • The funny thing is…. this post is all about obeying the laws. It is about being educated about the laws. It is about knowledgeable resistance against unlawful search. The police are governed by laws as well. They need to obey those laws and it is up to the citizens to act as a check, not to naively submit to abuse of power.

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