11 Tips to Keep Yourself Out of Trouble at Coachella

Article by: The Festival Lawyer|@FestivalLawyer

Fri April 13, 2018 | 10:30 AM

In 2017, Coachella security and local police made 128 arrests during the first weekend alone – a 38% increase from 2015. That’s actually an amazingly small number for a crowd of almost 200,000 people partying over the course of six days. In order to make sure you don’t end up as part of that unlucky statistic, here are a few quick legal tips to make sure your Coachella 2018 is a safe and fun one.

1. Take It Easy on the Alcohol

Coachella 2015 Daniel Zetterstrom   21

Quick. What’s the most common thing people get arrested for at Coachella? If you said to yourself “drugs, duh!” you’re wrong. In fact, each year over half of the arrests at Coachella are for being “Drunk In Public” or for other "alcohol-related” crimes.

Arresting people for being drunk at a music festival might sound like passing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500 – but in California, Penal Code Section 647(f) makes it a misdemeanor to be out in public if you are so drunk that you can’t take care of yourself or you are a danger to yourself or others. Bottom line? Pace yourself, know your limits and stay safe and hydrated throughout the day.

2. You Can't Bring Your Medical Marijuana Into the Fest With You

Coachella 2016 Eric Voake Ellie Goulding
Photo by: Erik Voake

Although medical marijuana is legal in California, festivals are on private property, so owners have quite a bit of legal leeway as to what can be brought into their venues. Coachella prohibits bringing in cannabis, even if you have a recommendation from a physician and your medical marijuana card. At the very least you will lose your stuff, and could be bounced from the event.

With cannabis still illegal at the federal level, the fest’s no-pot policy isn’t all that surprising. But check out the way it’s discussed on Coachella’s FAQ page.

Coachella Faq 2018 Marijuana Copy

Photo by: Coachella

The above “Bro” then links to Smokeout Festival’s Facebook page! Given the many people who are aided by medical marijuana, and it’s growing acceptance recreationally, maybe it’s time for Coachella to revisit this policy in a more serious way? For now though, leave your cannabis at home.

On a sidenote, Coachella has an “amnesty box” which allows you to drop off prohibited items anonymously before entering the festival. I used to think these were about as effective as a Taco Bell nutrition menu. But I am told by people I trust that they are not only used, but used a LOT every year.

3. Selfies Sticks Are Prohibited

Coachella 2014 The Confluence   27

Photo by Galen Oakes

In previous years, Instagram crashed during Coachella and people joked that it was the sheer volume of selfies being uploaded from Coachella that crashed it. Well, “selfie sticks” are completely illegal at Coachella. Coachella didn’t give any reason for the move, although when Lollapalooza announced its ban fest organizers wrote on Lolla's Twitter account that the selfie stick ban was due to safety, speediness at security checks and the need to reduce the number of obstructions between fans and musicians.

Those are probably Coachella’s reasons as well, although they also appeared to have a philosophical issue with it as well. I say this because they also jokingly banned “narcissists” from attending.

4. California Passing Prop 47 = Fewer Folks Going to “Coachella Jail”?

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Did you know there is a “Coachella Jail”? Yes, there sure is (if you are interested here is a story from the LA Weekly about what going there is like). California passed a law in 2014 (Proposition 47) which made cases involving so-called “personal use” of drugs like ecstasy only a misdemeanor offense. The good news is that this has meant that a lot less people are going to “Coachella Jail” and more folks end up getting a citation with a date to appear in court.

Local law enforcement has suggested that because crimes of “simple possession” are now misdemeanors, that they are going to try to use more citations rather than making arrests. At 2015’s festival local law enforcement made about a 100 misdemeanor drug arrests (most handled by way of citation) as opposed to only about 10 felony drug arrests. In other words, they're more likely to give you a citation or notice to appear in court rather than putting you in jail for the night. Remember though that these citations are still a misdemeanor criminal matter and should be taken seriously. If you get one, contact an attorney immediately. 

And don't forget about that amnesty box we mentioned earlier...

5. Remember the Magic Fest Law Words: “Am I Being Detained?”

Outside Lands 2013 Arrested Art Gimbel

Photo by: Fest300

If you do get stopped by law enforcement, the most important thing you can do for yourself is figure out if this is a “consensual encounter” (one in which you are free to go) or you in fact being “detained” by the police and suspected of a crime.

The best way to do that is by asking in a calm and polite manner ,“AM I BEING DETAINED?” If you are told you are free to go, walk away. If not, calmly keep asking “Am I free to leave?” Until you get to the answer "yes." As soon as you are told that you are free to go, walk away. If you are told you are not free to go, realize that you are now a suspect in a crime and need to invoke your other Constitutional rights.

6. Festival Entrances Are Not “4th Amendment Free” Zones

Coachella 2016 Goldenvoice Courtesy Of    01
Photo by: Goldenvoice

Your festival ticket says you “consent to a search” so you don’t have any 4th Amendment rights when you enter a festival, right? Wrong. Obviously, a festival has a right to search you to prevent weapons or dangerous objects from being brought into their event. However, there are limits to this type of search.

During Okeechobee Music and Arts Festival's inaugural year, a number of illegal searches were thrown out of court due to the fact that patrons were not given proper notice they would be searched and were not told they had a legal right to refuse such a search and be ejected instead.

Also unlike a TSA checkpoint at an airport, courts have said that festivals don’t have a right to make you strip down or engage in overly “invasive” searches. Take a minute to read about what items can and can’t be brought into Coachella. Also, you can read more tips on navigating festival entrances without a problem here.

7. Don't Make a Statement to the Police

Festival Lawyer 5 Tips Card

Courtesy of The Festival Lawyer

 If you are detained by the police (or worse, arrested) it is never a good idea to give a statement. Sometimes police officers will suggest something to you that seems innocent, but is actually really serious. (For example, “I know you weren’t going to sell this Molly, I bet you were going to just give it to your friends, right?”) Saying yes to that would dramatically increase the seriousness of your case. Don’t take chances. As soon as you realize you are suspect in a crime, invoke your right to remain silent and to a lawyer by saying the following:


8. Never Agree to Be Searched

Wanderlust Festival Squaw Valley 2015 Betina Vn Norton Tents

As I mentioned above, If you ask an officer, “Am I free to leave?” and get any answer other than yes, you should assume you are are being investigated for a crime and act accordingly. This includes refusing any and all requests for searches. Officers will sometimes just immediately launch into conducting a search to see if you will object.

Practice the following phrase and have it ready: “Officer, I am not giving you consent to search myself or my property.” 

An officer might search you anyway. Don’t resist or fight. But by stating out loud your objection, you’ve preserved your right to fight the search in court later. 

9. It's Not Entrapment Even If the Cop Was Undercover and Lied to You About Being a Cop

Outside Lands 2013 Art Gimbel   04

Photo by: Art Gimbel

Like most music festivals, there are undercover cops at Coachella. For some reason, there is a persistent legal urban myth that if you ask an undercover police officer if they are a cop they have to tell you they are. Nothing could be further from the truth. Police can absolutely lie to your face.

That means that even someone wearing a unicorn onesie could be a police officer. Never, under any circumstances give or take drugs from a stranger. Besides being common sense, it’s excellent legal advice.

10. Understand California's 911 Good Samaritan Law

Bonnaroo Medical Tent Cameron Bowman
Photo by: Cameron Bowman

Sometimes festival-goers worry that if they take a friend who is overdosing for medical attention, they might end up getting in trouble themselves. In 2013 California became the tenth state to implement a “911 Good Samaritan” overdose fatality prevention law. 911 Good Samaritan laws are designed to encourage people to quickly seek medical care for an overdose victim by providing limited protection from arrest, charge and/or prosecution for low-level drug law violations.

Be a good festival buddy. If one of your friends appears to be in distress, take them immediately to a medical tent and get help. Besides being the right thing to do, you should be okay, legally speaking. You can read more about the laws in this area here.

11. Use the "Know Your Rights" Infographic

Although  I am a lawyer, I am not your lawyer. I can’t give you specific legal advice because I don’t know your individual situation. However, I summarized your legal rights in a “Know Your Rights” infographic that could help you navigate any encounter with police.

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Finally, my last tip is the most important. BE SAFE AND HAVE FUN!!

Cameron Bowman is a cannabis and criminal defense lawyer in the Bay Area. Bowman also writes an advice column for festival-goers called, “Ask The Festival Lawyer.” Email him your questions at cameron@bowmancannabislaw.com.