What your constitutional rights mean to the police

Around 30 Portland State students and community members gathered for the Know Your Rights panel and video on Jan. 23 in the Multicultural Center of Smith Memorial Student Union.

The panel aimed to shed light on when and how to exercise your constitutionally protected rights during encounters with the police. Present on the panel were attorney and American Civil Liberties Union representative Ramon Pagan, judge Eric Bergstrom and Multnomah County Deputy District Attorney Nathan Vasquez.

The panel discussion was preceded by a short video featuring scenarios in which people, mostly in low-income minority communities, were stopped or searched by police.

The video, entitled “Flex Your Rights: 10 Rules for Dealing with Police,” aimed to provide viewers with the tools necessary to properly assert their rights.

Common sense rules included remaining calm during routine traffic stops, refraining from profanity and passing “the attitude test.” The video reminded viewers that the police are “the kings of the street” and that hostility or a slight against them could easily lead to a court date.

After the video ended and the panel opened up for discussion, the three members delved into issues surrounding the Fourth Amendment, which protects citizens from unlawful searches and seizures.

“All three people sitting before you have questions about [the Fourth Amendment] because it is a very nuanced area of the law,” Pagan said. “Just remember that you have a basic right to remain silent, that you have a basic right to refuse a search and that you have a basic right to refuse to allow officers into your home if they don’t have a warrant, and let your lawyer do the work from that point forward.”

In order to address concerns over the frequency and nature of unlawful searches, Bergstrom added, “The situations in the video were a little over the top…but they have to set up extreme circumstances in order to kind of lay out the scenarios where they’re explaining what your rights are, and you should know that you do all have those rights and you should feel like you can always exercise them.”

“If you’re not doing anything wrong, in general, nothing is going to happen to you,” he added.

Brandi Jenkins, a junior at PSU who is studying child and family studies, disagreed.

“I think that was coming from his point of privilege…I don’t have problems with the police, but that is because my life is different than how I used to live it and I’ve gathered information on ways how to deal with the police and ways not to deal with the police, but I don’t think that’s inherent,” Jenkins said. “It’s something that somebody has to teach you, and some people unfortunately aren’t taught those things.”

The discussion progressed into more controversial areas when Pagan reminded the audience that technically “cops can do whatever they want” if they are reasonably suspicious of your behavior.

When asked whether or not police officers can demand to see identification, he responded by saying, “They are armed. They have handcuffs, they have walkie-talkies, 15 cars that will come, squads, helicopters and tanks if they want to…you don’t worry about that. You don’t worry about ‘can you do that’ because let’s assume that he can do that. What are you going to do, stop him by saying, ‘you can’t do that?’ He’s not going to listen to you.

“That’s the message we’re trying to get across. You have rights, but they’re hard to define and what you just need to know is when to exercise them.”

Pagan concluded by saying that if you exercise your rights appropriately, you are more likely to be successful in court.

Vasquez offered the audience some recourse in the face of what appeared to be an inordinate amount of police power.

“If an officer is violating your rights, go file a complaint,” he said. “We have the citizens review board here in Portland. I’ve seen the complaints come through, and the officers have to deal with them. It’s a very real thing.”

Vasquez added that he believes a single complaint could be enough to incur consequences for an officer who abuses his power.
Following the presentation, Pagan gave some final words of advice.

“I just think a key to understanding you rights is knowing when to exercise them and that it’s very important to do so in a way that doesn’t make your situation worse. And it may be a sad fact of life that we feel we have to live that way, but it’s just common sense.”