Dear Police Officers: Your First Job is to Protect Our Rights

Posted by Richard Lawson | Aug 13, 2016 | 0 Comments

A Growing Divide Between the Police and Citizens:

Recently there has been a growing divide between the general public and those in law enforcement.  There are thousands of videos online of police encounters, many of the videos show police officers involved having lost their way.

I support law enforcement.  It is a difficult job with little reward.  Police officers often times are heroes.  They run towards the gunfire, not away.  Civil society cannot exist without law enforcement.  However, in our republic, there is a social contract between the public and the police, and many police officers and departments have breached or challenged that contract.   

A recent report by the Justice Department shows that the Baltimore Police routinely violate the rights of citizens.  The civil rights violations include stopping people for no reason, strip searching people in public, the excessive use of force, and the routine stopping of minority citizens for no reason.  

All of these violations are part of the America's war on crime and the result therein.  When we teach the police that they are fighting a war, then the enemy are the citizens themselves.  We further complicate things by saying things like "all is fair in war."  It becomes an ends justifying the means mentality.  This is the heart of the problem.

When Citizens fight back and exercise their rights, the police very often consider it an affront, a challenge to their authority.  They also perceive a person who exercises their rights as an individual who does not respect their authority or job to enforce our laws. It is interesting because I wonder how many police officers know from where our laws come?

Many police officers fail to recognize that the highest law of the land is the United State Constitution.  So, when people exercise their 4th Amendment right against unlawful search and seizure, their 5th Amendment right to remain silent, or their 6th Amendment right to an attorney they are very often taunted by police. 

Police officers sometimes react violently to people who will not allow themselves to be subject to questioning or subject to having their travel impeded.  There are countless dash cam videos online of people resisting unlawful questioning by border patrol agents or at DUI Checkpoints.  People are screamed at and berated by police officers when they do not want to submit to searches and questioning without probable cause that a crime has occurred.  

Even police officers who manage to control their outrage when a person exercises their rights will often tell a citizen that if they have nothing to hide why not answer their questions or allow their vehicles to be searched.  This misses the entire point.  Why would a police officer need to question or search a person who is not suspected of committing a crime?  Is this Nazi Germany?  Should we show our papers anytime a police officer asks us?  

The highest law of the land is the Constitution.  Our courts have so eroded our rights to the point where it has become commonplace that a police officer can stop a vehicle for no reason and subject all occupants to questioning.  Our founders would be turning in their graves.  The 4th, 5th, and 6th Amendments were the result of a reaction to how colonists were questioned and detained by the British for no reason.  We have come full circle here folks!

So, what should a person do when detained by a police officer who does not have reasonable suspicion of a crime?

The answer to this question is not simple.  Remember, you may be dealing with a potentially violent police officer who has no understanding of his duty to protect your rights and may be a person hell-bent on arresting citizens on the smallest suspicion of a crime.  He may be a person who will view your lack of cooperation, alone, as sufficient cause to arrest.

As a result, if you decide to answer an officer's questions in order to move on with your life, I will not criticize your decision.  However, you have actual rights.

If a police officer stops you, you are only required to provide your license, insurance, and registration.  Do so without hesitation.  Once you have done this, you are not obligated to answer any other questions.

If you decide to exercise your rights, ask the police officer if you are being detained or if you are free to leave.  Continue to ask that question again and again.  Tell the officer that under the 5th Amendment you are exercising your right to remain silent and the right to an attorney. 

Do not answer any questions, however benign.   Once you start answering questions, you will have waived your 5th Amendment rights. 

Never agree to pull over to secondary detention or questioning.  However, if you are ordered to do so, do it to avoid being charged with obstruction.  However, continue to ask if you are being detained or free to go.  Do not roll down your window any further than necessary to hand over your license.  Many officers employ passive alcohol detectors in their flashlights and will stick them in your car.

Finally, remind the police officer that by exercising your rights that should not be construed or implied that you have committed any crime.  Tell the officer that they, in fact, are committing a crime when they attempt to violate your rights.

The solution to this problem is quite simple.  We need to end the war on crime mentality that has permeated our police departments.  We need to teach police officers that their first job is to defend and protect the Constitution and the rights of citizens and that all other functions of their duties start with the premise that their job is to defend each person's rights, even when a person is clearly guilty of a crime.

We also need to have body cameras on all police officers to not only protect the rights of citizens but to safeguard the officers from false allegations of abuse.

Finally, we need to teach police officers to de-escalate police encounters and to speak to citizens with respect.  


About the Author

Richard Lawson

Managing Partner at Lawson & Berry:


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