On July 9, Waterbury, CT, police chief Vernon Riddick, Jr., rightly condemned the targeted shootings of Dallas police officers as a “heinous and hateful act.” Less than a week later, Riddick leveraged the crisis to instruct a roomful of citizens to waive their Constitutional rights whenever police demand it.
The report is rather startling:
If an officer stops your car, if they ask to search your person or vehicle, if they demand entry into your home, comply and then complain later to the department’s internal affairs office and police chief’s office if you feel your rights have been violated, Riddick said.
Radley Balko rightly condemns the attitude that a police chief expects citizens to waive their rights:
The intent behind the [Fourth] amendment was to protect us from the indignity and violation of our privacy when we’re subjected to a search that’s based on little more than a hunch — the intent was not to protect our right to later complain to internal affairs.
I realize things are tense right now. We should certainly respect and be aware of that when interacting with law enforcement officers. But to verbally refuse a request to search is an exercise of one’s rights. It isn’t a provocation. That Riddick and other police officials seem to see it as the latter is telling — and a big problem.
No, it’s a huge problem. Riddick’s comments reveal an increasingly common attitude among law enforcement, as well as conservatives in general. It is a classic tyrannical reaction to crime—one which has had tremendous ramifications throughout American history.
Conservatives appeal to constitutional rights when things like ObamaCare get shoved down our throats. But then they turn and praise its routine violation in the name of “law and order” or being “tough on crime.”
Let a black guy get manhandled as a drug suspect, let his backpack get shuffled, his car tossed, and his body searched, and conservative spectators will shrug saying, “He’s probably a criminal. He probably had it coming.” Let drugs be found on him and, whether the search violated his rights or not, the spectator will feel justified.
Let there be nothing found, and the justification will still come: “Small price to pay for keeping us safe.” “Tough on crime” and “law and order” are a code phrases conservative use to justify their trashing the Constitution like rank leftists.
I was not at all surprised to hear the reaction of the Trump-GOP industrial complex to the police shootings: “we need law and order!” It had hardly a word to say about apparently unnecessary shootings by police beforehand. There were no appeals to people’s constitutional rights; only justifications about what happens when you—you’ve got it—don’t comply. But let a policeman get shot (which is admittedly a terror and a tragedy), and the conservatives’ silence is broken: we must have—you’ve got it—law and order.
Yes, it is always smart and wise to “comply” when a police officer (or anyone, really) can readily shoot you. But why do we have to cultivate an environment in which so many seem so ready to shoot you? Why not rather, as Christians and conservatives, uphold the founding principles we all claim are Christian and conservative? We are told always to “comply” in every instance. But the founding principles say that compliance is not always required and not always necessary. Compliance is not an absolute—far from it. We have a God-given right not to comply in specific circumstances, and Balko is right: exercising that right is not a provocation.
We need to train police intensely to acknowledge that refusing consent is not a provocation. It is the very thing they should exist to protect. Instead, we do just the opposite, and the cultivation of the “comply” ethic, over time, has led to police chiefs now telling us we should waive those very rights.
Since 1973, the Supreme Court precedent has been that your ignorance of your right against unreasonable search and seizure can be used against you on the spot by police. Schneckloth v. Bustamonte cemented the doctrine that not knowing about your right is no defense against having unwittingly given consent. Police are trained to know this, and will use a wide variety of means and even tricks to get you to give consent to search. Once obtained, your right is gone. Your property is 100 percent at their discretion, will, control, ethics, etc.
Police therefore ask at routine traffic stops, “You got anything in your car I need to know about?” Answer that and you may have just waived your rights, or at least compromised them. Refuse to answer and you’re immediately (wrongly) treated as a suspect. They routinely shake people with, “If you’ve got nothing to hide, what’s the problem?,” or the accusation, “Why are you being uncooperative?” Give in to these pressures and you may have waived your right.
In light of a shooting or a terrorist act, people all the more willingly line up, waive their rights, and let the searches begin. Worse, in such a situation, they look at you as a criminal if you don’t line up and waive your rights, too!
The fact is, the vast majority of Americans are ignorant of these rights and how they can be exercised. Forget what’s on paper, and practice erodes it. Over time, ignorance gets exploited. In due time, standard practice becomes exploitation. People come to assume that the exploitation is what is right. They are revolted that anyone would dare refuse consent. Why would anyone do that? Don’t they know we could get shot? Don’t they know this is for their safety? Don’t they know we must do this to stamp out crime?
Now we see a police chief directly misinforming a whole roomful of citizens—as if the Fourth and Fifth Amendments no longer exist! The advice that people should just openly “comply” when police demand to search their home, car, effects, etc., is to exploit their ignorance of those rights. It is for the police power to overstep its bounds and ask citizens to waive crucial rights that are given precisely for when the police power would overstep its bounds.
Further, the idea that we can appeal to those very deceiving and invading officers after the fact “if” you feel your rights have been violated is even more deceptive and dangerous. The advice given would entail that you waive your rights. No matter what happens in the search after that, any appeal that your rights have been violated would be laughed at. You waived your right! You don’t have it any more!
Good luck with that complaint in any court in the land, let alone the very offending police department’s own self-review.
Worse, if Riddick’s advice is meant to say that it’s better to comply than to be subject to use of force, even if police are wrong, then his comments amount to an a rather transparent threat: waive your rights or we may kill you. In which case, what good does it do to have a Constitution at all, and what good to have an organization of force alleging to protect those rights for us?
In short, the right does not exist if the very evil it is designed to prevent is allowed to occur in the name of protecting it. The right does not exist if we create an institution allowed to violate it in the name of upholding it.
A better alternative would be for people to learn their rights intimately, and to advice the police chief that he and his department are expected to uphold them. In the spirit of Deuteronomy 17:18–20, police ought to be required to attend a public reading and explanation of the law and our rights every year, that their “heart may not be lifted up above his brothers, and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, either to the right hand or to the left.” It should be televised and published on all social media for posterity.
It would be good also to have a roomful of citizens forming a citizen’s police reform council with an eye toward creating an independent body that can provide oversight in cases that rights get trampled by presumptive and overzealous officers. It would be even better yet to have a fund designed to pay legal fees for anyone needing a good defense of those rights.