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Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Know Your Rights Even if You Are Completely Innocent

There is a popular myth that floats through some segments of the population that disparages the notion of constitutional protections for the rights of the accused. According to that line of thinking, if you didn't do anything, you have nothing to hide.

However that misses the fundamental nature of human character embodied in Federalist 51 by James Madison:
"If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary."
Indeed time and time again, people's failure to understand and exercise their constitutional rights, even when they believe they are innocent or are in fact innocent, pervades this culture. Time and time again, people end up with their lives altered or their liberties curtailed because they failed to heed very simple maxims when dealing with police and authority--the fallibility of human nature. I'm not even necessarily talking about maliciousness, although that certainly enters the picture. I am also speaking simply of human error committed by well intentioned individuals in authority. In the long run, perhaps you can say that people will be vindicated by the truth, but it may be a long process and costly in terms of time, energy, and resources. Innocent people have served decades in jail before release--decades that can never be returned to them. And if you are unfortunate and lack the resources to fight those charges, it may further impair your ability to live life as you once knew it.

The most basic of rights granted by the US Constitution are the right against searches and seizures without a warrant, the right against self-incrimination, which takes the form of the right to remain silent, and the right to have an attorney represent their interests.

Simply put people need to understand that they have the right to refuse to a search of their vehicle without probable cause and they have a right to prevent a search or even entry into their home without a warrant.

Moreover, while some people know that they have these very rights, they sometimes fail to exercise their rights. Just recently I was told a story where a man consented to the search of his vehicle. Why did he do this? Because he knew he had nothing to hide. And yet the police found something and he ended up arrested. Why? Because unbeknownst to him, someone innocently placed something into his vehicle that ended up getting him arrested. I am not at liberty to belabor the details of this incident, although it is interesting in its own right. The larger point is that this individual now faces charges and jail time for something that they had no knowledge of being in their vehicle. And yet, it could have been avoided by simply refusing to grant the police permission to search his vehicle.

Is this an extreme example? Probably. But allowing a police officer to search your vehicle when you have the right not to be searched only allows for the possibility that you will be found with something that maybe you failed to even consider or had no knowledge of. It also opens the door for potentially other more nefarious problems. The bottom line however is use your rights even when you think you do not have to.

To further illustrate this point, I will pick on the recent example in the Buzayan Case. Jamal Buzayan allowed police officers into his home. They gained entry based on a simple request to come in. Now Dr. Buzayan's attorneys will argue in a civil suit that when Davis Police Officer Pheng Ly asked to come in with the clear verbal intention of only talking, but in fact intended to make an arrest, Officer Ly violated the rights of Dr. Buzayan and his daughter by using subterfuge in order to gain entry to a property. This point will be played out in the courts and is the basis for the entire discussion on what an officer can and cannot do without a warrant in cases involving minors.

However, Dr. Buzayan could have avoided all of this had he simply exercised his rights and denied Officer Ly entry into his home. In the Flex Your Right video, which is also linked on the side column, there is a scenario that is played out twice where officers arrive at a home during a party called out on a noise complaint. In the first version, the officers are allowed into the home, spot illegal activity and then arrest the party goers even though the original complaint was not about drug use but rather noise. In the second and correctly handled version from the citizen's standpoint, the resident walks outside to talk to the police officer, closing the door behind them thereby preventing the officer entry or vision into the home. The people inside are not arrested in this version.

Had Dr. Buzayan spoken with Officer Ly and Officer Hartz outside of his home, Officer Ly would have needed to have acquired a warrant in order to arrest Dr. Buzayan's daughter. More likely, he would have simply asked Dr. Buzayan to bring his daughter to the police station in the morning for questioning. This would have avoided many of the problems that ensued from Officer Ly's arrest of the minor and subsequent interrogation of the minor.

Speaking of which, from the police interview tape we see that the minor in the Buzayan case seems to ask for an attorney upon being read her rights by Officer Ly. Officer Ly should have at the very least ceased the interview until he clarified that the request was indeed one for an attorney. However, the minor also erred here. Now, obviously being a minor we have to give her latitude, and this certainly should not be read as a criticism, but rather a point of learning how to better handle such a situation.

Once the minor requested an attorney, she should have stop speaking and insisted that an attorney be called. At that point, the officer would have again been forced to comply and he would have not have been able to attempt to gain a confession from the minor.

It is often amazing to me how many people in situations such as these do not request to have a lawyer present during questioning. It is my view as a layman that no one should ever enter a situation with the police interrogating you without requesting an attorney be present with the caveat being, as long as it is clear that you are or may at some point be considered a target for the investigation rather than merely a witness. This is backed up by the advice that the ACLU gives people: "Do not make any statements regarding the incident. Ask for a lawyer immediately upon your arrest."

Here are some resources available that will illustrate some of these points as well.
The final point here that I will reiterate because there is so much confusion. You can be perfectly innocent and yet end up getting into trouble simply because you failed to exercise your constitutional rights. But even if you are not innocent, knowing your rights will only aid you in having a strong defense. It is amazing to me how many problems could be avoided if people simply took heed of their rights.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting