Previously on our blog, in “Dignity or Death: Tips on Interacting With Law Enforcement,” we shared tips from law enforcement representatives and citizens’ rights advocates- those unaffiliated with law enforcement- on how to interact in a safer manner with police officers. Now, we are turning our attention to our Constitutional rights when we are stopped by the police.
The Right to Talk
According to the First Amendment of the United States of America, you have the right to engage in any speech that is not considered unprotected discourse. The primary examples of unprotected speech in this case is that speech intended to incite a riot or hate speech. If you engage with officers in a discourse that is considered incendiary or hateful according to the law, your speech is not protected.
This being the case, you have the right to say whatever you would like to say, ask any questions you would like to say, and have any attitude you deem appropriate as long as it does not fall under unprotected behavior. It is up to you to use your discernment in deciding how you will exercise this right. A common situation I have seen as an attorney is when people who are stopped say they have the right to ask why they were stopped.
The First Amendment absolutely protects your right to ask this question. Nonetheless, I have never been in a traffic stop situation where the officer did not tell me why I was stopped, therefore, I never had to pose the question. Thus, one course of action is to wait about 30-seconds for the officer to tell you before asking. If, however, you are so led to not wait for him or her to tell you, you are free to ask this question whenever you like. You are also free to have as much attitude as you can muster up until the point your behavior becomes unprotected. However, just because you have the right to do so, it does not necessarily make it prudent to exercise it.
The Right to Be Quiet
“You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say or do can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to consult with an attorney. If you are not able to afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you.” This includes part of the Miranda Rights contained in the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution. You have the right to only volunteer as much information as is necessary for the particular incident in question. While you are free to say and do anything that is not unprotected under the First Amendment, the Fourth and Fifth Amendment give you have the right to be quiet and not further incriminate yourself.
The Right to Record
According to the First Amendment, you, or any bystander, have the right to record police interactions. Just because you have the right, however, does not mean that law enforcement will respect it. Thus, if you choose to record without a confrontation that could end badly for you, do it in as inconspicuous of a manner as possible. When you choose to exercise more discretion in your filming, not only will this make your recording safer, you will likely end up with more footage of the incident that can be used if the stop results in criminal charges or a civil lawsuit.
What I Teach My Son
Ever since taking my 9-year-old son to see Selma at the beginning of 2015, we have had a series of discussions about life. We’ve talked about Who defines our self-worth, how there are good and bad people, how we always have a choice in how we choose to treat people, and most recently, how to conduct yourself with the police. All of these talks center around him being true to who God called him to be and not basing his reactions off another person’s bad day. I also made it clear to him that he has rights in all situations, but he also has God-given discernment and he needs to use it.
There is a time and place for everything under the sun, and he is not required, nor is it smart, to say everything you are thinking. When it comes to police encounters, you need to know the time and place to engage in discourse. When you are on a street with an officer that may or may not be waiting to charge you up, that is not the place to say all that is on your mind unless you are ready to die. You have the right to do so, but just because you can do something, it does not mean you should and as the Scripture tells us, “There is a season for everything.” I further let him know that according to the faith he confessed, it is important to exercise self-control and though something may be lawful, it does not mean that it is profitable. Hence, it is vital to use the wisdom and knowledge God gives you to make intelligent decisions.
Further, I let him know that as his attorney- I did not want to say mom- I am the person he should ask questions if he has an involuntary encounter with the police. Most importantly, I talked to him about doing all that was within his power to avoid a negative interaction from the start. We discussed not breaking the law, not hanging around with people who break the law, and seeking a trusted adult if something that is not lawful has occurred. While these things may not stop him from being targeted by the police, they will hopefully serve as some type of deterrent.
What have you told your kids about their rights when engaging with law enforcement? Have you had the conversation?
If you would like to connect with me further on this topic, you may find me on Twitter at NowWithNicole.
photo credit: Constitution of the United States (the actual document) via photopin (license)