The Police and your rights

Thanks to some, eh hem, difficult circumstances, the American public has been pretty critical of the police recently.  Some are claiming officers of the law enjoy too much power, and that police brutality is such an overwhelming epidemic we should consider reworking the rights of both citizens and police officers.

I don’t like reading about people dying in the news, but I also don’t like hearing people talk about police officers like they are scumbags.  Sure, sometimes police can overstep boundaries, but for the most part they are fulfilling a dangerous, noble duty by protecting and serving the public.  Instead of being thankful of cops, we are disgruntled and fed up.  Part of people’s distrust of legal servants like police officers, in my opinion, stems from an academic misunderstanding of the limits of police power.  I think if everyone just educated themselves a bit society might work a lot better. So, with the help of the ACLU, I’ve conducted a little research that might aid in completing this goal.

Obviously, the police enjoy certain rights.  Fortunately, so do you.  Most notably, the United States Constitution has a thing called the “fourth amendment” which prevents unneccessary or unwanted searches or seizures.  In today’s language, that means a cop needs a warrant before they rifle through your stuff.  This includes anything on your person or in your dwelling, and also includes your car.  If a police officer stops you on the street and demands to search your bag, you have a constitutional right to tell that officer “no”.  However, it’s worth noting police do enjoy a degree of “probable cause” so if you match a description of some sort, or the cop can prove there is a need to conduct a search, then they have a right to conduct a search on the spot. In fact, it’s probably best to refuse to be searched, as once you do so it’s considered consent, and any possible thing an officer might find could be used against you in court.  Refusing to be searched is not an admission of guilt, and you can’t be presumed guilty if done so.

You also have the right to remain silent.  If questioned, you may refuse to answer questions.  The exception to this question is if the officer asks you to identify yourself, and which case you absolutely are required to do so.  In most states, if an officer of the law asks for ID, you must comply.

Most importantly, you have the right to leave.  If you are not under arrest, then you may ask the officer if you’re free to go, and then calmly leave.

The police, however, enjoy the right of “judgement.”  As a citizen, you do enjoy certain rights, but a lot of times what people forget when they claim cops are too powerful is the fact you must always remain calm during an encounter.  If a cop determines you are being threatening, dangerous, obtrusive, interfering, or generally obtuse in any way, shape, or form they enjoy the right to have more rights than you, simply said.  When any single encounter could turn violent or deadly, cops must be alert and vigilant at all times, so any sort of resistance or aggression shown towards an officer are absolutely grounds to be brained with a billy club.

You don’t need to consent to a search, you don’t need to answer their questions, and if they aren’t arresting you for anything, you are free to leave.  Those are pretty incredible rights we enjoy as Americans.  Some countries can arrest you on the spot for anything.  I think a lot of people forget that police officers are human beings and not the terror robots protestors are making them out to be.  Human beings enjoy being treated with dignity and respect, and a little of that goes a long way.

When I was 19, I was pulled over for the first time on my way to a restaurant with my friends.  It was probably about 7:30 pm, late in the year so it was already dark.  I had four guys in my car with me and it’s a road I’ve driven a million times, so I was probably doing about 65mph (in a 55).  I come out of a wooded area, head up a hill, and then I see the blue and white lights behind me.  Of course, I’m freaking out a little bit so I pull over, kill my engine, turn on the dome lights, and tell everyone to shut up.  The cop walks up to my car, shines his flashlight in my backseat, shines the light on me, and immediately asks where I was headed.

“Out to a restaurant, sir,” I said.  “We are getting wings.”

“Well, this isn’t the best place to have you pulled over, so let’s go about half a mile up the road at the bottom of the next hill,” the officer said.

“No problem, sir.”

I led the way, and I probably went about 35 mph that half mile.  I pulled up to where he wanted me, and repeated the process I had done earlier.

“Do you know why I pulled you over,” the cop asked.

“Honestly I was probably speeding a bit, sir”, I said.

“I clocked you going about 65, and noticed you were swerving a little bit,” said the cop.  “You doing any drinking at all tonight?”

“No, sir, I’m only 19,” I said.

The cop seemed satisfied with that and then went back to the car to run my license and registration.  He came back, handed me my papers, and asked if I could step out of the car for a minute.  Oh.  My.  God.

Literally shaking, I step from my vehicle, hands out at my sides like an idiot, and close my door.

“Who all do you have in you car tonight?” he asked me.

I proceeded to tell him the name of all my friends, hoping maybe he knew one of them, and praying none of them had a warrant out or something.  I stammered like a nervous third grader asking if was okay to pee their pants.

“Relax, son,” the officer said.

That meant a lot for him to say.  For the first time this encounter, I actually realized this was just a dude doing his job.  Any car full of teenage guys is usually up to no good, so it’s hard to blame him for pulling me over (even though I know for certain I wasn’t swerving).

He then asked me where I went to college and what I was going for and asked me if my dad was “Tim”, just small talk stuff like that.  He told me to get back in the car.  He came back like five minutes later.

“I’ve got some bad news, your registration looks like it’s expired,” he said.

Crap.  That must have been what was in that little envelope my mom was telling me  I needed to put in the car.  Whoops.

“I’m sorry, sir,” I said.  “It’s no excuse but I literally got it in the mail the other day and forgot to put it in here.”

He paused for a moment.   He shined the light in the backseat, then back at me and then said, “Well, I need you to do me a favor.  I want you to slow it down a little bit, and get that new paper in here as soon as you get home, and you stay safe.  Have a good night.”

“Thank you, sir.  You as well,” I said.

I was kind of in shock.  It’s dumb to say, but I couldn’t believe how that all worked out, since I figured it was just some cop interested in writing tickets.  Even though I sounded like an idiot (I literally said ‘sir’ once per sentence) I did my best to be polite and treat this guy with respect.  So, since he was a human being, he cut me a break, and was respectful to me.

I know me getting pulled over isn’t really comparable with something like the Mike Brown situation, but I just feel it’s worth mentioning police are human beings, who more or less enjoy the same rights as you.  Sure, they can push the limits of these rights sometimes, but when they are tasked with protecting entire communities, it’s easy to see why sometimes the police might go a little farther then people think is necessary.

For all the people claiming the police in this country are a force of evil that needs to be resolved, I just challenge you to put yourself in their shoes.  I don’t really know any police officers, except my best friend’s brother, and he is one of the most fun-loving people I’ve ever seen.  Police aren’t monsters, and situations like Ferguson, or the kid in Cleveland with the fake gun who was killed, are all situations that could’ve been avoided if people just showed the police even an ounce of respect.  You don’t have to like what they are doing, and even if the police are violating your rights, the most important thing to do is play along, cooperate, and then contact either an attorney or the ACLU, who can fight for your rights.

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