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Knowing Your Rights: How to Protect Yourself From Police Who May Not Follow the Letter of the Law

Police come in all varieties, from altruistic to dastardly. Police come in all varieties, from altruistic to dastardly.


Recently there have been several stories in the news outlining the fact that not all police and other public servants are necessarily the nicest, most respectful, or caring people in the world. Anti-police activists have used these incidents to pursue their argument that law enforcement is inherently evil and fascist. What these activists don't discuss is that out of all law enforcement interactions with the public, only one percent are negative or result in an innocent person being treated unfairly. However, according to the Innocence Project of California, 50 percent of these improprieties ended up in wrongful convictions.

Clearly, even one incident of police brutality is one too many, but within any group of society, from police officers to investment bankers, there will be some jerks. The problem here is that these jerks have guns and authority.

Police Injustice and Harassment

Perhaps the most egregious incident of late is the case of Angel and Ashley Dobbs, a 38-year-old aunt and her 24-year-old niece. The two were traveling north through Texas on their way to a casino in Oklahoma when state trooper Davis Farrell pulled them over for allegedly throwing a cigarette butt from the vehicle.

After the Trooper approached the car, he stated that he thought the smelled an illegal substance and felt that the driver, Angel, was acting "nervous." He proceeded to have a female officer assist him in removing the ladies one by one to search their vehicle.

Up until this point, the state trooper in question was completely within the legal limits of a vehicle stop. It may feel like an invasion of privacy, but police are allowed to search your vehicle for a range of reasons, from a driver looking "nervous" to the officer allegedly smelling drugs or suspecting weapons to be in the vehicle.

Frankly, it's pretty one-sided against the civilian on this one.

Because a vehicle is not considered by the law to be as private as someone's home or apartment (though many people I know would disagree), a car can be searched without a warrant. However, the driver and passengers in the car cannot (except under special circumstances) be searched.

I will get to what rights you can exercise in a moment. For now, my best recommendation when it comes to not getting in trouble during a vehicle stop is this:

Don't carry anything illegal in your car, don't act nervous, and don't be rude.

Police Invasion of Privacy

When Officer Farrell was unsuccessful in his search of the Dobbs vehicle, rather than accept the reality that these women were innocent, Officer Farrell, in all his wisdom, decided that the smell he had experienced must be coming from the women's body cavities.

Based on this assumption, Farrell ordered his female partner, Officer Kelley Helleson, to perform a cavity search on the two women, right on the side of the highway.

Helleson complied, digitally examining both the vaginas and anuses of both women, with the same glove. She did the entire search in full view of not only passing motorists, but the police car's dash-cam, which documented the whole disturbing ordeal, and showed a completely disinterested Helleson, as though searches like this were done daily. I shudder to think that this is the case and the Dobbs case is just the first to come to light.

Angel, who has suffered from anal cysts for many years, says that the search aggravated one of them, causing her continuous physical pain in addition to the emotional anguish of having been sexually assaulted in such a public way.

"I was molested; I was violated. I was humiliated in front of other traffic," she said in a statement to a local news station. "(Then) I had to watch my niece go through the same thing and I could not protect her at that point."

When I heard this story, I posted a link about it on my Facebook, and received a variety of responses from, "that's insane" or "disgusting” – the type I expected. However, I also received a couple of responses that truly took me aback, from friends who honestly did not understand my outrage.

"If this was wrong, can you please tell me the proper protocol for a roadside cavity search ?"

"Was it because it was the side of the road...?"

"People hide drugs up there all the time, what are police supposed to do?"

"Is it because they are women?"

"Complaining about stuff like this just makes it harder for the police to do their jobs."

Their jobs? Their jobs? It was as I read these comments that I realized that some serious education needs to happen in this country about what police can and cannot do to us.

The Need For Education

As someone with a lot of respect for law enforcement, it is hard for me to see stories like that of Angel and Ashley Dobbs. I know that it will negatively affect the public's already negative view of police, but also that officers like this cannot be allowed to disregard our rights in this way.

Their jobs, while some of the hardest on the planet, are to take care of us, the innocent citizens, not to use their authority to sexually assault others.

And for the record, there is no "proper" protocol for how to perform a roadside cavity search because that is insane. In a civilized society, no one is legally penetrated on the side of the road by their "peace officers." Period.

So, What Are My Rights When I Am Pulled Over?

In a situation like the one Angel and Ashley Dobbs went through, your options are limited. Clearly you cannot fight back against the police (though in this case what happened was actually a sexual assault and a good lawyer could possibly argue for self-defense); but violence is never the answer in situations with the law. Your weapon is your mind and your knowledge. The more you know about your rights, the stronger you will be.

That said, you can verbally protest, and refuse to comply with a public body cavity search.

"Bro, It's 5-0"

Firstly, when a cop "lights you up," pull over as soon as it is safe to do so. Leave your window in whatever position it was in, make sure the radio is off, and your hands on the wheel at ten and two. Stay exactly like that until the officer approaches your window. He or she will then give you instructions. Follow them.

Your best bet at getting through your traffic stop quickly and without incident is to be calm and polite. Keep your hands in view. Don't do a lot of looking around; try to stay focused on the officer, and what he or she is saying to you. If they tell you that you were speeding; you probably were. Apologize without making up any stupid stories (if Grandma really needed to get to the hospital now, she wouldn't need you; she could call an ambulance), and promise to slow it down from now on.

Just be honest -- "I got caught up listening to a great song and wasn't paying as much attention to the speedometer as I should have, but this was a total wake up call, and the last thing I want to do is kill myself or someone else because of a great song on the radio," or something along those lines.

If the officer asks to search your vehicle, weigh your options. If you are 100 percent sure that there is nothing to hide and you have time for them to conduct a quick search, just let them;it shows good faith.

However, unless the officer informs you that he or she is "going" to search without asking permission, they likely do not have reasonable suspicion, and you have every right to refuse their search. Simply say something polite and to the point, like "I am sorry, officer. I have nothing to hide, but I do not consent to searches."

The Fourth Amendment

We hear a lot in the news lately about the Second Amendment, but in this situation, your friend is the Fourth. Essentially, what the Fourth Amendment does is protect individuals from searches when there is not "Probable Cause" (there's that other term).

Now, there is no guarantee that the officer in question will not simply come up with a "Reasonable Suspicion" (i.e. "I smell drugs"), but you have made your legal position known, and the officer has chosen to override you. This stuff may be important in court, should you (God forbid) get that far.

If the officer does instigate a prolonged traffic stop and you feel comfortable doing so, filming the officer's actions may be a good choice. If he or she gets agitated, simply state that it is "for the safety of both of us and that you have no ill will toward him/her."

Reasonable Suspicion, Probable Cause, Search Warrants, Strip Searches and Cavity Inspections

Another thing to remember is that "Reasonable Suspicion" does not allow for the search of human beings and their cavities. This is perhaps where I became so shocked with my own friends' comments about this case. In order for an individual to have their cavities searched, there are several legal steps required, and they do not consist of some backwater cop requesting that his female partner commit rape.

Reasonable Suspicion: This is a term for when an officer has some reason to believe that the person to whom they are speaking may be hiding something or involved in some sort of illegal activity, but there is not enough credible evidence to issue a warrant or arrest the person. They may be detained for a short period of time. When an officer has "reasonable suspicion" of someone, they perform what is called a "Terry Stop," where they are allowed to frisk the person for weapons, but not search well enough to find drugs. This kind of stop would have been a legal search of the Dobbs ladies.

Probable Cause: When the officers believe that they have enough information to arrest someone or to obtain a warrant to search a person or property, they call it "probable cause." In these situations, the evidence is more overwhelming than with reasonable suspicion; enough that a judge has agreed that this person or place should be searched.

This is the kind of proof that was needed, by law, to perform a cavity search on Angel and Ashley Dobbs. Had they been arrested during their traffic stop and brought into custody, they could first have been strip searched, then a warrant could have been obtained for a doctor (not an officer) to perform the search. Not before then could they legally be penetrated by anyone. However, even after their ordeal, Angel and Ashley were never arrested, and no illegal substances were found.

On a side note, I'm not trying to be gross, but Officer Farrell must have the nose of a bloodhound (at least in his mind) to be able to distinguish the smell of drugs wafting from within either of those "cavities."

One thing to remember is that if you are on probation or parole, you can be stopped and searched for any reason at any time. Once you get arrested, you lose a lot of the freedoms that those of us without arrest records take for granted. Everyone with a clean record – keep it that way.

Also, in many states, they have what is known as a "stop and identify" statute, meaning that if an officer has a reasonable suspicion that you might me up to no good, he or she can stop you and ask for ID. In these 24 states, a person without ID can be arrested until their identity is confirmed as someone without any warrants. For this reason, I recommend that you get in the habit of keeping your ID on you all the time, whether you are driving or walking. If you are speaking to an officer and are unsure if they have "reasonable suspicion," just ask “excuse me, Officer, but am I being detained or am I free to go?" If you are free to go, wish the officer a good morning/afternoon/evening and walk away.

House Party Raids andthe Five-Day DEA Starvation/Dehydration Diet

Another story that was all over the news this past summer was the story of a San Diego college student who was simply at the wrong place at the wrong time and paid dearly for it.

On April 20, 2012, UC San Diego (which, for the record, is not known for its partying) student Daniel Chong was attending a house party while, unbeknownst to him, DEA agents had been setting up a sting operation against the homeowner and several other people, who were allegedly buying and selling ecstasy. Chong had absolutely nothing to do with the drug ring, and made that clear to the officers on the scene, who assured him that he would be quickly detained just for questioning and would be back home by the end of the night.

That quick detainment turned into one of the most egregious human rights violations that the US has seen in years. Chong was placed into a holding cell, which (as the name suggests) is for the temporary holding of detainees, and is not built for long-term housing, without even a toilet or sink.

Chong was placed into this cell and forgotten about for almost five days. Chong banged on the glass in a desperate attempt to get attention, but by the time officers had realized their mistake, Chong was near death – suffering dehydration and starvation, as well as hallucinations related to the mixture of dehydration and mental anguish at what he feared was his slow an impending death at the hands of the DEA. During these five days, his fellow arrestees had either been released or booked into the San Diego County Jail, where they had food and beds.

Desperate, Chong drank his own urine, and when that failed to quench his thirst, he broke his eyeglasses and used the glass in an attempt to slit his own wrists. By the time officers realized their mistake and had Daniel seen by medical professionals, he was in a severe state of dehydration and his kidneys were shutting down. And this all happened because this unfortunate young man was in the wrong place at the wrong time; he had no illegal items in his possession and was never charged with anything.

He is, however, suing the Federal Government for $20 million. Angel and Ashley Dobbs are planning to sue as well.

For their part, the DEA have released the typical "oops, we effed up" statement: "DEA plans to thoroughly review both the events and the detention procedures on April 21 and after," but offered no additional explanation as to how a human being could have been placed in a holding cell and forgotten about for five days. FIVE DAYS. Is this DEA facility staffed by Consuela from Family Guy?

What if This Happens to Me?

Firstly, there are a couple of things that you can do to protect yourself right from the beginning. If you have the chance while police are interviewing other people in the house, get on the phone and tell someone about what is happening, that you have done nothing wrong, but to keep track of your whereabouts.

Give as much information as you can, such as: "the DEA is here, along with the Sheriffs, if you do not hear from me within a few hours, please find me." This will allow friends and family to locate you. You should be allowed to make calls from jail (not just one, either), but if for some reason the officers will not allow you to make any calls, whoever you informed prior to your detainment should be able to do some work for you from the outside, and you will definitely not be forgotten.

Secondly, comply with the police, but exercise your right to remain silent. It seems like on cop TV shows there are Miranda Rights being read left and right, but in real life, you will hear the Miranda speech very infrequently. Officers only need to read you your rights if you are both under arrest and about to be questioned. Any and all questions that are asked of you regarding your guilt or innocence should be answered the same way: "I'm going to remain silent and I would like to see a lawyer." Cops love to chitchat with you in order to get you to say something incriminating about yourself or someone else – it's their job.

Lastly, make sure that you are staying in touch with guards, sheriffs, nurses, even other inmates – anyone who comes by your cell. When you have the opportunity, use the phones to stay in contact with friends and family. In jail, the only person looking out for you is you.

Other Situations Where Dwellings Can Be Searched:

If you live in a college dorm, you have pretty much no rights whatsoever when it comes to privacy, regarding both your personal property and the contents of your computer or other media. The dorm room belongs to the school, and those long leases that you signed? They pretty much all give the college the right to enter and search your room at their will. So, don't be hiding any meth labs in your dorm room, Heisenberg.

If you rent, the situation is similar but with a few more rights for the renter. A landlord typically has to give 24 hours notice before entering a dwelling. In addition, anyone with a key can consent to a search of your place, including any of your roommates and your landlord. So, it may seem like a weird topic to discuss with your potential roommates, but if personal security is important to you, you may want to make sure that you are all on the same page when it comes to searches.

If you own your own home, the situation is pretty simple. If an officer wants to search your home and does not have a warrant, all you need to say is "I'm sorry officer, I'm sure you are a great guy (or gal) but I do not allow strangers into my home." It is then up to them to return with a search warrant if they have probable cause.

In The End, It's All About Protecting Yourself From the Small Few Who Are Not Protecting You

Hopefully this guide gave you some helpful basics about dealing with police. Remember that while many laws are the same from state to state, not all are, so check the local laws of your state, county, and city to make sure that you never find yourself in a situation where the law has all the control.

And if, like Angel, Ashley, and Daniel, you find yourself on the wrong end of a law-breaking lawman, here is a good site that breaks down the various complaints you can make and the pros and cons of each.

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Last modified on Wednesday, 27 February 2013 18:02

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