Fourth Amendment

On Flexing Your Rights. Or At Least Humbly Attempting To Hold on to Them.

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The invaluable organization Flex Your Rights has released its latest video, 10 Rules for Dealing With the Police (good Washington Post writeup here). Narrated by Baltimore criminal defense attorney Billy Murphy, Jr., the new video is targeted at minority groups subject to profiling stops.

But while giving the Flex organization proper credit for educating the public about stops and searches, Ken at the Popehat blog raises an important point about the first rule, "Always be calm and cool."

See, if your goal is not to be abused, wrongfully arrested, falsely accused, searched without probable cause, or proned out on the pavement because you irritated someone with a gun and a badge, then "don't be mouthy to a cop" is excellent practical advice. But dammit, we shouldn't have to give that advice. The concept that you should expect to be abused if you aren't meek (or, to be more realistic, subservient) in dealing with public servants ought to be abhorrent to a society of free people. Courtesy is admirable, and unnecessary rudeness is not, but rudeness ought not be seen as inviting government employees to break the law. But the reality is that our society largely issues apologias for, not denunciations of, police abuse. The prevailing belief is that claims of abuse are about lawyers or crooks trying to game the system, that people accused of crimes generally committed them, and that cops are heroes of the sort who deserve the benefit of the doubt when their account of a roadside encounter differs from that of a citizen. Our society, for the most part, indulges cops in their expectation that citizens will be subservient. As a result, "don't talk back to a cop" remains tragically apt practical advice.

Moreover, the truth of it is that many cops will interpret an assertion of your constitutional rights, however politely delivered, as a rude challenge. They are supported in that view by four decades of "law and order" talk that classifies constitutional rights as mere instrumentalities of crime, not as the rules by which we have chosen to live.

Shame on us if we put up with that.

Here's a good example to illustrate Ken's point: Last week, a panel from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that three Seattle police officers were justified in using a taser three times on a pregnant woman for resisting arrest. The woman had been pulled over for going 32 mph in a school zone. She insisted it was the car ahead of her that was speeding, and refused to sign the ticket. That's when they tased her.

The problem is that under Washington law, (a) you aren't required to sign a traffic ticket, (b) speeding isn't an arrestable offense, and (c) you can't be arrested for resisting an unlawful arrest.

So the woman was completely within her rights. Yet asserting those rights got her the business end of a stun gun. Three times. And two of the three federal appellate judges to hear the case see nothing wrong with that.

So yes, submission to police officers even when you're well within your rights is good advice. But it shouldn't be.