10 Tips to Keep Yourself Out of Trouble at Bonnaroo

Article by: The Festival Lawyer|@FestivalLawyer

Mon June 04, 2018 | 11:30 AM

This weekend is the kickoff for Bonnaroo , a music festival attended by over 80,000 people in Manchester, Tennessee. Every year Bonnaroo seems to be in the running for the title of “America’s best festival” due to its combination of southern hospitality, good vibes, and great lineups.

In order to get the most out of your experience, here is a quick legal guide to making sure your own 'Roo is a safe and fun one.

1. Be Aware of the Bonnaroo “Gauntlet”

Hero Bonnaroo Marco Sanchez

Photo by: Marco Sanchez

Bonnaroo’s festival site is a 700-acre farm located in Manchester, Tennessee. It’s about sixty miles southeast of Nashville. Because of this location, it's one of those festivals where there is basically only one major entryway into and out of the festival.

Tennessee Highway Patrol troopers routinely wait on Interstate 81, the way bears wait for salmon at the shallow parts of rivers. The police pick out a car they think is going to Bonnaroo and look for a traffic violation. Troopers issued 533 traffic citations in 2017, including a whopping 244 seat belt violation tickets. For more tips on how to get through a "festival roadblock," click here. 

Obviously, the police often use this initial traffic stop as an excuse to bring in a drug sniffing dog or otherwise try to search your vehicle. It is profiling, but it is not illegal or unconstitutional to profile.

The good news is there are a number of legal tips that can help you preserve your rights and prevent your car from being randomly tossed by the police during one of these encounters. I’ve put them together for you in a short video above.

2. Coffee County Won’t Let You “Pay Your Way Out of Trouble” Anymore


Photo by: Hasbro

In 2015, the newly elected Coffee County District Attorney announced his intention to crack down on Bonnaroovians who get in legal trouble at the festival.

In prior years, people who were issued citations or who were arrested at Bonnaroo were allowed to pay a fine ahead of time. Often, by paying this fine you could have your criminal charges dropped without even having to appear in court. However, District Attorney Craig Northcott indicated that he wanted to change this policy and treat criminal cases coming from Bonnaroo the same as any other criminal cases.

What does this mean for you? Local law enforcement made about 70 arrests in 2015 (up from 60 in 2014) Although it was not exactly a “crackdown,” it does appear that criminal cases are being treated more seriously at the festival now than in years past. You should expect that your case will be in handled in criminal court and you will need to be present (and probably hire an attorney) should you be arrested or cited at the festival.

3. Bonnaroo’s Medical Tents Are a “No Questions Asked Zone”

Bonnaroo Medical Tent Cameron Bowman

Photo by: Cameron Bowman

If I could give you one piece of non-legal advice about Bonnaroo, it would be to pace yourself. Take time out for rest, food and LOTS of water. The 'Roo can be a hot, muggy, swampy time in the afternoon. Combining that with alcohol or drugs is a recipe for disaster.

Sometimes festival-goers worry that if they take a friend who is overdosing for medical attention, they might end up getting in trouble themselves. Although Tennessee is not one of the states that has passed a “911 Good Samaritan” overdose fatality prevention law, Bonnaroo does a great job on its website of making it clear that their tent is a “no questions asked” safe haven.

If you or a friend are in trouble, please seek out medical help IMMEDIATELY. Medical and security are safe havens at Bonnaroo, and you will not get in trouble for anything you do or say. Their only concern is your well­-being – and look at what a great job their medical tent does sending that same message to festival-goers.

4. Object to Officers Going Into Your Tent Without a Warrant


After Bonnaroo 2015, a number of people contacted me to report that Coffee County Sheriffs were going through their camps and searching their tents without warrants and without their consent or permission.

In People v. Hughston 168 Cal. App. 4th 1062 (2008), a California court was asked to rule on whether the police needed a warrant to search a tent at the Sierra Nevada World Music Festival at the Mendocino County fairgrounds. The tent was put up within a designated site on land specifically set aside for camping during a music festival. The court found that the defendant was at the festival lawfully and had established some level of privacy at the tent. Therefore, he did have a “reasonable expectation of privacy” in the tent and a warrant was needed under the Fourth Amendment.

There isn’t any case law in Tennessee on the subject of tents and privacy interests at festivals. Therefore, it’s not at all clear whether a Tennessee court would follow California on this area of law.

But to put yourself in the strongest legal position, you should act as if they might. Keep the tent flaps zipped shut, windows closed and act as if it is your private home when using your tent. And object to any search of your tent without a warrant and without your permission. You can read more about this issue here.

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

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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 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. Don't Make a Statement to the Police

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If you are detained by the police (or worse, arrested) it is never a good idea to give a statement. Sometimes police officers will ask you something that seems innocent, but is actually admitting to something 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:


7. Never Agree to Be Searched

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Photo by: Andrew Jorgensen

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.

8. Tennessee Laws are Different

Bonnaroo 2015 Marco Sanchez   44

Photo by: Marco Sanchez

It’s not hard to remember that Bonnaroo takes place in the south. “Southern hospitality” is really a thing there, and from the time my plane touched down in Nashville, I was amazed by how much pride Tennesseans have in this festival.

Coming from California, it can be easy to forget that the rest of the country still takes marijuana offenses much more seriously than out west. Remember that possession of over a half ounce of weed is a felony in Tennessee and leave your medical marijuana at home.

9. Bonnaroo and Drug Kit Testing 

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I’ve written previously about the legality of so-called “drug checking kits” and whether they qualify under a state’s “drug paraphernalia” laws. In 2015, the Bunk Police (which provides test kits to patrons who want to test their substances for the presence of risky or harmful adulterants) was booted out of Bonnaroo.

The Bunk Police organization was given the option of being booted from the festival and their supplies be returned or they could stay at the festival and no longer operate their tent. It was unclear if this was due to organizers' fears of running afoul of the so-called “RAVE Act," concern over Tennessee’s very strict paraphernalia laws, or the event’s stated reason of lacking a proper vendor’s license.

Harm reduction groups (and anyone who is a fan of sensible drug policies) will always be watching to see how Bonnaroo handles the issue.

10. Use the "Know Your Rights" Infographic


Photo by: The Festival Lawyer

Although I am a lawyer, I am not your lawyer. Therefore I can’t give you specific legal advice to cover your particular situation. However, I summarized your legal rights in a “Know Your Rights” infographic (above) that should help you navigate any difficult encounter with the police.

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

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Disclaimer: Although the Festival Lawyer is a lawyer he is not YOUR lawyer. The ATFL column gives general information about legal topics, NOT legal advice. The law is complex, varies a great deal from state to state, and each factual situation is different. Also, “The Festival Lawyer” is a fictional character. Think of the Festival Lawyer more like a legal spirit guide, encouraging you to educate and inform yourself.