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Opinion: Cops, Costumes, and the Constitution (kind of)

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Lawyers upon lawyers stress the importance of shutting up when cops ask questions that could lead to self-incrimination. Through an unfortunate interaction with a few police officers this year’s Halloween weekend, I found out exactly what happens when that advice is followed.

I narrowly avoided actual arrest. But allow me to share a few pieces of wisdom I gained from the experience in addition to subsequent talks with Pat McGee of the Center for Student Legal Services and Lt. Timothy Ryan of OUPD.

Descending Stairs and Determining Suspicion

The incident began as I was walking down the stairs leading to a friend’s apartment around 11:30 p.m. I saw officers mingling with the crowd to break up the party, and I turned around to see if my friends were behind me so I wouldn’t be abandoned outside. So many people were walking downstairs that pushing upstream would be next to impossible, however, so I kept moving forward.

I heard a male voice say as I walked by them, “Grab the girl in the cowboy hat. She turned around on the stairs so she probably has something to hide.”

Lt. Ryan says that police officers do not have specific guidelines in determining whom they question. He cited observations such as the odor of a beverage, the look in a person’s eye or behaviors like shouting and fighting that contribute to an individual’s questioning.

“In my experience, individuals that get arrested or charged have generally called attention to themselves in some way,” he said.

The way I called attention to myself was by turning around on a staircase. I did not have a beer in my hand. I was far from obliterated, so I know they didn’t pick me out because I looked drunk. I made myself look suspicious… by turning around on a staircase.

On Respecting the Badge

So the officer who physically yanked me out of line asked to see some I.D. The advice McGee gives to students is presenting a state-issued form of identification is not required by law. You are only required to provide your name, address and date of birth.

Section D of the law goes on to say, “It is not a violation of this section to refuse to answer a question that would reveal a person’s age or date of birth when that age or date of birth is an element to the crime that the person is suspected of committing.” Lt. Ryan affirmed this through our correspondence.

In as calm of a voice as I could manage, I told the officer questioning me—I did not take note of his name— I would give him just that. He replied by telling me “this uniform isn’t a costume” and pointed to his uniform while sneering, “You need to learn to respect the badge.”

Granted, McGee also said such behavior wouldn’t exactly be met with a pat on the back and a gold star for knowing your rights, so I wasn’t surprised. I’d like to reiterate that I did not have a tone with him. I was nervous, but kept my voice calm, as any reasonable adult should.

But the officer’s response was not respectful at all. Instead, he tried to intimidate me, saying my mouth—my mouth that was speaking both my Constitutional right and Ohio Law—“might get me arrested tonight.” His tone was not how he would speak to my father, or my mother, or any human being who would not be intimidated by scare tactics.

He spoke to me that way because I am a student, so he knew he could frighten me into submission. 

Self Incrimination: Just do it

I eventually did produce my license. I learned that the party had been broken up because some idiots were chucking bottles off the balcony, so I thought it didn’t seem too serious. (Police didn’t catch them, of course.) And I’ll be honest: his scare tactics did work for a moment when he told me to “choose between my I.D. and handcuffs.”

Again—that is not the law. But I produced the license because, right or wrong, I didn’t want to deal with jail. And officers do not need proof beyond a reasonable doubt to make an arrest, just “probable cause.” Since turning around on a staircase clearly fits into the latter category, I would have been screwed.

I fished through my purse for my wallet while he sneered, “You can’t tell me you walked all the way up here without your I.D.”

He looked at the I.D., paused, and then proceeded to mock me for being underage in a sing-songy voice that a jerk older brother would use while squealing that he was going to run and tell on me to Mom. I was stunned. I don’t think my own brother has ever spoken to me that way. I was so taken aback that the possibility of jail was momentarily forgotten, and my confidence was restored.

When he asked if I had been drinking, I said I didn’t wish to incriminate myself. He laughed and snarled, “Well at this point you might as well!”

So, yes, we’ll begin with absolutely no evidence that I had committed any crime at all, and then we’ll gradually keep digging a hole until I have no solid ground to stand on.

Luckily, I got away with just a warning. Maybe he could tell I wasn’t going to cooperate and any interrogation was a waste of his time; maybe they just had bigger fish to fry considering I hadn’t caused any stir before they stopped me.

Respect the badge but not the law

All this occurred while I was dressed up like a United States president and holding an American flag.

The stress of dealing with thousands of young people breaking the law and acting irrationally is not lost on me. But while maintaining order is one thing, intimidating students who were in no way exhibiting any signs of unlawful activity is another.

Responses like “respect the badge” rather than “respect the law” show that it can flip from protecting the book to protecting the ego faster than you can plead the fifth.

“What standards do we require the police to really prove?” McGee said. “Do we just accept the police test without ever really challenging it? Because that’s what seems to be happening in Athens.”

Power trips aren’t unique to police officers, but most professions don’t carry guns. I’m lucky they let me off with a warning; let’s not forget that a lot of people are met with a lot more police hostility for doing a lot less.

Cops are so accustomed to their intimidation tactics succeeding on college campuses that their subsequent power is assumedly granted to them through the uniform and not just uninformed fear of students too terrified of jail to put up a proper defense.

There have to be checks and balances, and it’s up to us to enforce them. We shouldn’t respect their badge if they won’t respect our rights.

 

 

 

 

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