Thursday, May 19, 2011

Watching the Watchmen: Your Rights and the Police (Part 1)

This is a letter that I wrote to the editor of my school newspaper last month. I don't know if the editor just didn't get it or if I should have sent it to the newspaper repeatedly until the letter was published in the paper, but it was never published regardless. SO... here it is.

Keeping us informed of our rights as citizens in general and during police encounters was one of the primary goals behind the formation of many groups during the Civil Rights and Black Power eras, case in point: The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. The BPP aimed to educate members of the Black community their legal rights as citizens and human beings, as well as how to assert and defend those rights. Although the BPP no longer exists, there are still groups and individuals who do wish to inform the Black community of their rights, and this work should continue.

On April 1st, SGA (Student Government Association) hosted an event titled "Your Rights and the Police" featuring members of the Prairie View police department, and various District Attorneys from Dallas County, many of which were PV alumni. The reason I attended is because the flier advertising the event stated that the panel would discuss our rights during police encounters in public, in our cars, and at home. I was disappointed to see that that did not happen.

The underlying message that I got from some of the panelists who spoke was that the police are being victimized by the media, we should not assert our rights and let the police do what they want during encounters. Others did speak to the fact that crooked officers exist, and gave advice on filing formal complaints and stressed the importance of keeping written or audio/video records of police encounters. Still, the problem that I have with a majority the information given during the event is that given the panel member's professions I believe they fully understand our rights and the benefits of asserting them, and chose not to fully inform us about them. As police officers and District Attorneys, their success is primarily driven by the public's ignorance of their rights and the law in general, especially in the Black community. This ignorance can be seen as a factor contributing to the high incarceration rate of Blacks in America.

"The [Miranda] warning, which is intended to inform you of your rights regarding police questioning, does not have to be read to you if you are not placed under arrest. The reason for this is that if you are not arrested for committing a crime, you are not going to trial, so you don’t need to be warned that what you say can be used against you during trial." (

Although it is true that being responsible and not breaking the law is the best way to protect oneself during police encounters, the fact still remains that criminals and law abiding citizens alike are protected by the Constitution. We are protected from self-incrimination by the 5th Amendment, and protected from unwarranted searches and seizures by the 4th Amendment. During a police stop, it is my right to decide whether or not I will answer the officer's questions, or to say "I am going to remain silent" or "I do not consent to searches, or dog sniffs" whether I am breaking the law or not. It is also my right and responsibility to thoroughly READ the warrant, if presented, before allowing the police to conduct a search or arrest. If I am not breaking the law, I am simply asserting my rights as a citizen. If it should happen that I am found to be breaking the law, the fact that I asserted my rights may grant me some protection in court.

The message that the panel had regarding those statements is that if you had nothing to hide you wouldn't need to use those statements, which makes someone who does use the statements appear suspicious. The fact behind that assumption is that many people do not know that they have the right to make those statements during police encounters. For those who do know they may not feel comfortable doing so, or may be intimidated by the police and fearful of the consequences if they do use them. I believe if more people learned their rights and asserted them that it would make the people who currently assert their rights appear less suspicious.

The Texas Penal Code even goes as far as to give citizens the right to defend themselves in the event that an officer uses excessive force while conducting a search or arrest (Texas Penal Code - Chapter 9 - Subchapter C, Subsection C) Given the amount of police abuse and misconduct that occurs throughout the US involving Black people, it would be beneficial for citizens to know these rights and provisions given by law to citizens and officers alike. But, knowing the most probable consequences, that course of action is not advised unless a life-or-death situation immediately calls for such actions. Instead, one should record the altercation if possible (with a voice recorder, video camera, or even having someone on the phone to listen during the encounter). Always make sure that you get the name (with correct spelling) and badge number of every officer present at the altercation. Put it in writing as soon as possible, contact witnesses, and file a formal complaint against the officers with the police department and the American Civil Liberties Union(ACLU). You won't win anything arguing or fighting the police in the street, so record and document everything you can and use it against them in court.

Despite the methods of asserting and protecting one's rights, how would one know that they even had the right to defend themselves or someone else in that situation, alone not knowing that the concept of illegal searches, illegal arrests, and inadmissible evidence even exist without studying the law themselves or being informed by someone who has? I personally think every citizen, namely Black men and women, should own or find access to a copy of Black's Law Dictionary, know how to gain access to legal resources including the state and federal Constitution, and keep a copy of legal advice for handling police encounters with them in the car, at home, or somewhere close by.

The police and DA's have their responsibilities but we as citizens and members of the Black community also have the responsibility of protecting ourselves by learning, asserting, and defending our rights. We owe it to ourselves, the coming generations, and the members of the generations before us who fought for us to have those rights in the first place by learning what our rights are, how to exercise them properly, and using them to the best of our ability should our time come.

Prentice Sams

Resources For More Information

Texas State Constitution and Statutes

Texas Penal Code - Chapter 9 - Subchapter C, Subsection C

Exclusion from Criminal Liability - Personal Defense

(c)  The use of force to resist an arrest or search is justified:
    (1)  if, before the actor offers any resistance, the peace officer (or person acting at his direction) uses or attempts to use greater force than necessary to make the arrest or search; and
           (2)  when and to the degree the actor reasonably believes the force is immediately necessary to protect himself against the peace officer's (or other person's) use or attempted use of greater force than necessary.
 (d)  The use of deadly force is not justified under this subchapter except as provided in Sections 9.32, 9.33, and 9.34.
*This site also includes links to free legal advice
Focuses on resources for fighting police misconduct. Plus- strategies and techniques to combat police abuse, brutality, harassment, and corruption.

Flex Your Rights
* This site includes explanations of your rights and examples of how to exercise them.

WARNING: Although I deal with legal terms and ideas, I am not a lawyer, I've never been to law school, and none of the ideas expressed in the letter should be taken as professional legal advice.

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