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Mar 31 2012

Being cautious with police

In a previous post, I mentioned how one needs to be very cautious in how one responds to police requests for information, unless it is clear that you are being called upon as a mere witness, say of an accident. If there is the slightest chance that you may be a possible target, then you should invoke the Fifth Amendment and get a lawyer. It is not that you should never cooperate because after all the police need the assistance of law-abiding people to solve crimes. But you usually have plenty of time to do so. There is nothing to be gained and a lot to be lost by being in a hurry to be helpful.

The main risk is that your words may be used against you, even if you are totally innocent. This implies bad intentions on the part of the police and this is something that middle class people, especially white, are reluctant to believe. My own rare encounters with the police have always been extremely cordial. And it is true that most police are not interested in messing up the lives of innocent people. But a few are not as scrupulous and the problem is that you don’t know who fits into the latter category.

Jonathan Turley recounts the story of a 60-year old woman who was accused by two police officers of felony obstruction and DUI. But the woman’s cell phone that had fallen during the encounter had continued to record the conversation and it revealed that the two officers had lied about her behavior. If not for that, the woman would have had no chance in having her word taken over the sworn testimony of two police officers.

Turley says that this episode emphasizes the importance of citizens recording their encounters with the police.

4 comments

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  1. 1
    The atheist cop

    But this doesn’t mean not give your name and contact info. If you give a statement that can be used against you we will inform you if not it will be thrown out of court. Not all cops are assholes and out to put everyone in jail and not out to stomp on your rights. The easiest thing to do… From my 17 years in law enforcement is cooperate if you get defensive and argue… As a witness it sends up red flags for us.. If you want argue we can do it in court… But as a witness and you are truthful and cooperate.. 99% of the time even if you commit a petty crime you will probably be told not to do it again and sent on your way… Some of us use reason when dealing with stuff

  2. 2
    Daniel

    As a former cop myself, I can say that you are right that not all cops are “out to get you.” Not all cops use reason like you do, thus there are enough other cops who think the Constitution just gets in their way. You can’t trust any of them to honor your rights, and you are taking your chances with your life or liberty if you trust any of them by not exercising your rights. If a person’s exercise of his or her constitutional rights raises a red flag and you, as a cop, further detain the person on that basis alone, then you need to find another profession. Constitutional rights are made to be exercised on the street, and often if you don’t exercise them there, then you lose (waive) them in court (an example is consenting to a search or talking to the police).

  3. 3
    NDDave

    Not all cops are assholes

    Quite true. However, since there is no way to know just by looking whether or not the police officer in front of me falls into the ‘petty vindictive asshole’ category or not, I have to assume that any officer I encounter cannot be trusted to even obey the law, much less uphold it.

  4. 4
    Eric

    Good little article, Mr. Singham.

    At the establishment of the US Constitution law was intended to be common knowledge for all. It is extremely beneficial to know our rights and our extents. It is there to both get us out of a vise and get us out of the occasional occurrence of a crooked cop.

    Though law is incredibly complex now-a-days there is a lot of comprehensive resources available be it on the web or in the law section of your local book store. Nolo publishes great and concise books that I believe should be on the bookshelf of every American. They range from Landlord-Tenant, Traffic Violations, Copy Right to creating your own Living Trust, Wills, etc.

    I always say, “Within understanding lays freedom.” Our freedom can sometime be a byproduct of our understanding of the laws of our land. It goes both ways.

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