The recent stories in the news are a reminder that in a civilized society, the difference between civilization and anarchy is the law. As a criminal defense attorney, my job every day is to defend people whose rights have been violated. However, the key point here is that the word “violated” is in the past tense. No person can prevent the police from breaking the law when they unlawfully arrest, detain, or order someone to do something (or to stop doing something).
Only a few nights ago, one of my clients called me at midnight wanting me to intercede with the police on her behalf. She was very unsatisfied when I told her there was nothing I could do to stop the police from harassing her. In the public sphere, my influence is no different from any other citizen. However, in court is where I work every day to protect people's rights. Like everyone else, when I am directed by a police officer to move my car, step away from something or to leave a public place, I am obligated to follow that direction. If I do not follow that direction, even if unlawful, I am subject to arrest and the consequences therein. As a result, I will obey even an illegal order of a police officer.
That notwithstanding, there is a remedy when the police violate someone's rights. The remedy is civil damages for violating constitutionally protected rights. Additionally, a person can seek to have a police officer dismissed or disciplined through an internal affairs complaint.
A perfect example of this is the city of Dunwoody recently paid a $52,000 settlement stemming from an illegal search in 2014. Officer Dale Laskowski, who is still with Dunwoody PD was accused of illegally searching someone. The charges were later dismissed. This was the fourth time Officer Laskowski has been sued under similar allegations, yet he remains employed by the city of Dunwoody. The good news here is a court of law came to the correct remedy, and the charges were dismissed. Also, the victim was compensated.
This is a far better result than being arrested for disorderly conduct, obstruction, or even worse. Allowing the police to violate our rights is not a weakness. The police are armed and have resources that we private individuals do not have. However, police officers testifying in a courtroom have no greater resources or authority than anyone else. In the court, citizen jurors ultimately decide whether a police officer has acted appropriately or has abused their power. The courtroom is where we can stop the police when they act inappropriately or when they violate someone's civil rights. Allowing yourself to be arrested completely turns the situation from a place where you have an equal opportunity of redress to a situation where the police have an advantage. Once a person is arrested, any complaint appears to be merely a reaction to the arrest itself and a complaint after the fact.
Ultimately, my advice is if a police officer directs you to do something, follow that direction. If their direction is unlawful or abusive, there is a remedy in a court of law.