How to Invoke Your Rights in Police Encounters

On a Friday night after a jersey party third-year psychology major Jamie Hectus and three of her friends were walking down Main Street. As they approached P&G’s they noticed a significant police presence out front and abruptly turned around and walked away.

Unfortunately there were two officers coming up the street behind them. The four girls were stopped by officers who began to question them and eventually intimidated all but one of them into willingly handing over their fake IDs.

What the girls did not know at the time is that in certain circumstances they reserve the right to politely decline to be searched. Additionally, had the girls asked if they were being detained or if they were free to go and that statement often dismisses people who have not necessarily done anything wrong from the conversation.

Ignorance of individual rights during an encounter with a police officer is a common attribute of college students. A lot of kids come to college without ever have interacting with law enforcement and often do not know what to do in this type of encounter.

SA Attorney Victoria Kossover usually sees students after they have gotten in trouble for possession or a fake ID. Many students make, what might otherwise be an unlawful search, legal by consenting to search out of fear or intimidation, or simply thinking the officer will give the student a pass because of their cooperation.

Unfortunately, it isn’t until after a student suffers such a police encounter that they learn about their constitutional rights and how to invoke them during any future police encounter.

According to Kossover, the processes for incidents on campus are different from arrests that occur in town. She said that the procedure on campus is based on due process, but, the administrative rules, such as burden of proof, are not the same as in criminal court procedures. A student is also facing different types of sanctions in the respective forums. 

During encounters with officers, Kossover recommends that the student identify themselves, politely remain silent, politely decline to consent to a search if the officer asks, and then ask if they are being detained or free to leave. 

The student should not attempt to determine if “probable cause” for a search or arrest exists. If the officer conducts a search or an arrest without the student’s consent, do not resist. The lawfulnesss of the police conduct will be determined later either in an on-campus administrative hearing or court of law.

Kossover added that although there are instances of overly aggressive policing, she has found that the chiefs or heads of police departments try to create a culture of better police-community relations. New Paltz Town Police Chief Joe Snyder said that his department has made tremendous progress in community policing.

“A big change I think over the past few years is transparency in what we do,” he said.

Snyder added that their police commission meetings are televised and any time use of force or defensive action is used during an arrest, it is documented and talked about in a meeting so that community members are able to hear why certain policing tactics are applied.

According to Snyder, college students are members of the New Paltz community and with that membership comes the responsibility to take care of it. He said that the department rarely sees serious crime from any of the students and deals mostly with fights or property damage in alcohol-related incidents.

He added that officers do not typically experience a lot of challenges when dealing with college students who want to express their rights. Snyder said that individuals have the right to question as long as it is appropriate to the situation and done politely.

“I don’t think college students are a big problem at all for us,” he said. “We embrace all of them because they’re part of our community and we like to share that with them.”

Snyder said that the department does not have charges dismissed on the grounds of unlawful search and emphasized that an unlawful search by any of his officers is unacceptable. He also explained that there is a process to every arrest and if an individual resists arrest the officer must simply gain control as quickly as possible to complete the arrest process.

“There’s an implicit bias that takes place in everybody,” Snyder said. “Society in itself, police, community, we all have to work on that and understand our weaknesses in that aspect.”

Snyder added that police undergo training to reduce this bias and his department’s goal is to work with the community on this front. Officers are expected to be polite and use as little force as possible to accomplish their job and duty.

“There’s times where they have to be forceful,” Snyder said. “We evaluate those times and evaluate any complaints we may receive, but I’m proud to say that we get many more compliments than complaints.” 

In cases of fake IDs and possession, anything willingly handed over to a police officer is not considered an unlawful search. However if a search does occur that is not warranted, then that would be thrown out in court.

“Most of the time judges are reducing them anyway if you’re a first time offender,” Snyder said. “Especially with college students.”

Snyder said that ultimately if an individual has something that is illegal and the officer has probable cause, it is best to cooperate with the officer and as a result, the charges will not be as harsh.

“Fake IDs are an example,” Snyder said. “You can be charged with a felony for a forged government document. Generally the officers won’t charge you that.”

He added that these arrests also affect the bars in terms of write-ups and fines from the State Liquor Authority. Additionally, officers have the discretion to make an arrest or not make an arrest but they cannot let you keep the illegal item and allow the crime to continue.

“Fake IDs, everybody has them,” Snyder said. “It’s the nature of youth. We can’t just turn the other way, we have a job that we are supposed to do and it kind of keeps the whole flow of other issues in line as well.”

For students who are curious about their rights in encounters with police,  Kossover is available in her office in the Student Union Building on Wednesdays from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Additionally, there are “Know Your Rights” presentations on campus throughout the academic year for interested students.