Wednesday, August 29, 2007

You have the right to remain silent

Jesse's post (just below) on Anastasio Prieto points up something that's been a burr under my saddle for a long while now.

Very few Americans under 30 have ever taken a civics class . Which means nobody's ever walked them -- slowly and patiently over several weeks -- through each article of the Bill of Rights, and explained to them -- carefully and thoroughly and in great detail -- how those articles define the way they as Americans should expect to interact with their government.

This, of course, is very convenient for the would-be oligarchs in our midst. Funny thing: people who don't know they have rights aren't nearly as inclined to insist on them.

Now, right up front, I need to point out that Prieto's in a very special pickle, due to the plain fact that nothing in the Bill of Rights applies when you're sitting at a US border checkpoint. If you're trying gain entry to the country, they're entitled to do whatever they want to you. You have two choices: submit, or don't cross. If ICE wanted to search him, he could either say yes, or turn around. He was very much at their mercy.

Also: if you have more than $10K in funds, you're committing a crime if you don't declare it. So Prieto, law-abiding citizen he, declared it. As a trucker, he's probably a frequent border-crosser who'd done this often enough before, and had no reason to expect trouble this time. Jesse's right: the whole thing stinks to high heaven of extortion, and it's yet more evidence that ICE is an agency working at the fraying edges of what's allowable in a free society.

(I cross the border about twice a month. I don't know what HSA has in my file, but I appear to be an A student: the ICE guys always run my passport, look at the computer screen, smile, and wave me through. But writing that last paragraph, I'm feeling the fear that my happy status could change now that I've written something unkind about them. I'm an American, dammit. The very thought that I would even feel any fear at all just makes me furious. As they're fond of saying -- without a trace of the irony I always seem to hear anyway -- welcome home.)

But if Prieto had been anywhere but a border checkpoint, there is absolutely no reason that this would have needed to go down like it did. He would have been asked the same questions; but he could have walked away with his truck, his money, and his rights intact -- if he'd understood his rights under law.

Which, as I noted earlier, almost nobody does. Which is a problem, since more more and more of us seem to be finding ourselves in these situations. Which means that this, kids, might be a fine occasion to brush up on your civil rights in regards to police interactions.

First: There's a reason cops always ask before searching a home or vehicle. It's not because they're trained to be polite. It's because they cannot conduct a search without your consent. And you do not have to give it to them. Ever.

When a cop asks if he can enter your house or take a look inside your car, the right response is always, "Do you have a warrant?" And if they don't, the next right response is always NO. (Extra points if you step outside the front door and close it behind you; or exit the vehicle and lock the door behind you as you say this -- these actions unmistakably demonstrate your intention to withhold consent.) If Prieto had been anywhere else in America and asked this question, all he had to do was say NO when the cop asked if he could search the truck. And that right there would have been the end of it.

Mistake #2 was telling the cop anything. He had a right to remain silent, and to refuse to be interrogated. The right answer was, "Am I free to go?" If the cop hems and haws, you can assume the answer is yes. He doesn't have a valid reason to detain you. Another good option is: "I'm sorry, I know you're just doing your job -- but I'm under no obligation to answer your question." And then, again: "Am I free to go?" (If the answer is "no," of course, then your next move is to refuse to talk until your lawyer is summoned.) Again, had Prieto done this rather than answering the question about how much money he had, the cop would have been cut off from pursuing events further. As an American, you have a right not to answer nosy questions about your personal business -- not even if they come from cops.

I know. You never, ever see people acting like this on Law & Order. But that's because TV cop shows have done a great job of teaching people to surrender their rights without even realizing that that's what they're doing. Once you do know, those TV cops provide all kinds of useful examples showing how people get manipulated out of their rights all the time.

For an even better example, though, watch this instead. A group called "Flex Your Rights" has a terrific 45-minute video tutorial on this available on YouTube called Busted: The Citizen's Guide to Surviving Police Encounters . Watch the whole thing. Watch it twice. Watch it with your friends and kids. Watch it with the people you party with -- and (most particularly) those you do political work with. The day may come when knowing when and how to say "no" to a cop may save your property, your freedom, or your life.

Nobody in America knows this stuff any more. For a long time, back in the days when the cops worked for us, white middle-class Americans didn't need to. (On the other hand, if you were poor, black, or brown, you've always needed to know this.) But in our new America, knowing how to defend our basic civil rights against armed government agents trained to wheedle them away from us is an essential survival skill that we all need to get busy and re-learn.