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Residents, students need more awareness of rights when speaking with police

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | APRIL 29, 2011 7:20 AM

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Iowa City residents seem to have difficulty saying "no" to police officers.

Over the past week, there have been 40 reported alcohol- or drug-related police citations to college-age persons in Iowa City. Thirty-three were alcohol-related, six were drug-related, and one was arrested for both. In a sampling of 16 police reports pertaining to drug charges, eight admitted to police officers at the scene that they owned the drugs that the police allegedly found in their possession, house, or vehicle — some even saying they intended to sell (reports listed only two people as explicitly denying possession).

The frequency of these kinds of arrests, not only recently but historically, highlights the need for awareness of rights.

It's impossible to definitively say how many charges could have been avoided without self-incrimination, but Greg Bal, the supervising attorney for University of Iowa Student Legal Services, estimates that 75 to 80 percent of his clients would never have been convicted if they simply exercised their right to remain silent. In order to do this effectively, he says, one must temporarily break their silence, otherwise it might be considered a consensual agreement to waive that person's other rights.

"The best way they can exercise this is just to be brief and non-confrontational," Bal said. "'I'm sorry, officer; I do not wish to make a statement.' That's one of the things I talk to students about. Another way is to ask for an attorney."

Students may think that refusing to speak with police officers is a sign of guilt itself, but exercising one's civil liberties is not about guilt or innocence; the rule of law exists to protect everyone, not solely the unjustly accused. The legal system is often so onerous because it is weighted toward an absence of wrongdoing, something that ostensibly protects everyone from the convicted small-time marijuana dealer to the innocent man accused of murder.

Local residents and UI students should assist in this particular slant. Exercising rights, including the explicit non-consent to a search (Bal says the magic words are, "I do not consent to a search"), refusing to allow police into one's home without a warrant and refusing to claim ownership of any illicit materials can only help citizens.

One of the more important rights that people tend to waive is the right to plead not guilty. "That's very big, very important," said Bal. "We see students all the time, who, after we listened to the facts, did not commit an offense but, unfortunately, had pleaded guilty at their initial appearance, so, essentially, they're convicted for no crime. Police routinely over-charge."

When faced with an obtuse set of codes, ordinances, and regulations, any gray area is ripe for harm, even if nobody involved is acting from malice. An unnecessary conviction, particularly for drugs, can seriously damage a person's employment and education prospects.

Iowa has a diversion program for some first-time offenders, making it possible for their initial offense to be wiped from their permanent records. Still, all of this may be avoided in some cases with simple education and assertiveness.

Students and citizens: Don't talk to police more than necessary to refuse a search and ask for a warrant. The use of rights ensures their continued relevance.


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