Constitution, Bill of Rights relevant to students


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Miranda rights can easily be tied to lines of dialogue heard while watching reruns of "COPS" or "Law and Order" on late-night television. But when fiction turns into reality, students need to know exactly what they can do to avoid a legal debacle that could haunt them indefinitely.

In many more cases than one may expect, the U.S. Constitution values individual privacy and liberty over acts of alleged crime.

By learning and exercising the rights guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, University of Iowa students can avoid the mistakes that have led to the prosecution of many students in the past. The Bill of Rights was formed to limit the power of government to ensure American citizens of their natural freedoms of unwarranted intervention.

The topic of conversation at Wednesday night's "Know the Law: Know Your Rights" presentation in the IMU was more pragmatic than that, providing invaluable information to otherwise uninformed listeners.

Greg Bal, the supervising attorney at the UI Student Legal Services, enlightened students about what is within their Constitutional rights when talking to police officers or other law-enforcing personnel.

The first, and arguably most practical right, is the right to remain silent, or as Bal puts it, students' "right to shut up." If a student is arrested, he or she should remain quiet and not answer any questions without the presence of a lawyer. This right is guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment: "… nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself … without due process of law."

Bal estimates that in his many years as a public defender, nearly 70 percent of convictions could have been avoided if his clients had not spoken after being arrested. If arrested, you can stay quiet and not answer any questions.

Another right often overlooked by students is their right to privacy. If police officers do not have specific warrants, students do not have to consent to searches, including searches of cars, homes, and even their pockets or backpacks. This right is guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment, "The right of the people to be secure … against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause …"

Students should make it very clear to police officers that they do not have permission to search these personal items by politely stating, "You do not have consent to search my property." There is no need to provoke any avoidable conflict with an officer.

"Sometimes the police are just fishing," Bal said. Police often are persistent in asking questions in order to gain enough evidence for a search or arrest.

Students are not always obligated to stay when the police are questioning them. Sometimes police are simply questioning individuals to get information to constitute probable cause for a pending arrest. In this case, ask the police officer explicitly, "Am I free to go?" If the officer says yes, then the student can leave and should do so immediately. If the officer says no, then the student should assume he or she is under arrest and should exercise Bal's "right to shut up."

If you are taken to a courtroom and are put in front of a judge, Bal has some more advice.
"Never plead guilty. Plead not guilty every time you are taken before a judge."

If one pleads not guilty, then that person will have more options and a chance to get the charges dismissed at a later date.

In this case, students should take advantage of the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment: "… in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right … to be confronted with the witnesses against him."

It should be known that students in university-run residence halls have fewer rights than those living off-campus, as part of the signed UI Housing contract. Normally, police need probable cause to enter a residence, but in these cases, only suspicion is needed. University officials can enter a room, without warning, for routine maintenance, and anything found while in the room can be brought in court as evidence.

Knowing the Constitutional rights can be essential for anyone, whether criminally prone or otherwise. If you act with a firm confidence, while still being polite, you can avoid legal disaster that could haunt you for the rest of your professional life. Remember to be calm and quiet, and lawyer-up if you need to.

After all, it is what the Founding Fathers would want you to do.

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