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Thursday, December 27,2001

Just say nothing

Upstanding students defend our rights


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What part of "nothing" does state Sen. Terry Phillips fail to understand? Phillips is upset that Boulder police haven't trotted out the new anti-hazing statute he sponsored, in response to an incident that put two underage University of Colorado sorority members in the hospital with alcohol poisoning.

Police won't press hazing charges because they lack evidence. The case is weak because members of the Kappa Alpha Theta sorority and Phi Gamma Delta fraternity have said nothing in response to questions by police.

Their response-nothing-is proper. To those who disagree, I ask: What part of "nor shall any person be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself" do you fail to understand?

It's gratifying to see that our "best and brightest" may have finally taken the time to actually read the Fifth Amendment, something which appears to be an uncommon occurrence even in the halls of academia.

Given the prevalent intolerant community attitudes toward college students, no one should be surprised that students-who seem to abide in the position of the perpetually accused-are choosing to exercise their unalienable right to remain silent. It's a lesson that everyone ought to learn, lest it be forever forgotten.

No matter how much the police might try to convince you that they are your friends, and that they just want to ask you a "few questions," don't believe them. No matter how often they tell you that you "aren't in any trouble," don't believe them.

When a crime occurs, everyone's a suspect. There is no "presumption of innocence" when it comes to police work. In fact, the police have a duty to "presume guilt" as a part of their investigations. The "presumption of innocence" is nothing more than a courtroom fiction that applies only to juries.

So, when the police come to your door, be skeptical of their motives, particularly if you live "on the edge" of the law-which is likely if you are a college student these days. Got a fourth roommate? Then you're breaking the law. Chances are the police aren't there to help you, they are probably there in response to a complaint and their intent is to get you to let them inside so they can discover evidence in "plain view" or get you to admit to something they think you have done.

Police don't have to read you your "rights" unless you are physically in custody or are being detained in such a way that a "reasonable person" would not feel free to simply walk away. Like any citizen, a police officer is free to walk up to you and ask you questions. It's called a "voluntary contact" or "non-custodial interview."

Few people understand that unless an officer actually arrests you-or tells you that you are not free to leave (what's called a "Terry stop," a temporary investigative detention not amounting to an arrest)-your are not only free to leave, but you're free to decline to even acknowledge, much less speak to an officer. Even a Terry stop, however, requires police to have some indication that you have committed a specific crime. Based on the decision in its namesake U.S. Supreme Court decision Terry v. Ohio, police must have a "reasonable, articulable suspicion" of a crime before detaining someone.

You are especially entitled to keep silent when a police officer comes to your home to make inquiries. You are under no obligation whatsoever to even answer the door when police knock, much less allow them inside without a warrant. Trust me, if they have the legal power to enter your home against your will, they will do so-with or without your permission-usually by the use of a battering-ram and SWAT team.

Even if you don't think you've done anything wrong, remember that the police enforce all the laws, not just those pertaining to the violation of the moment. If they're investigating a rash of burglaries you didn't commit, you might be inclined to let them in. In doing so, they might catch a glimpse of your roommate's pot plant. You might take the rap.

Yesterday, police investigated the shooting of a 19-year-old Boulder man in the basement of his Martin Acres home. Typically, the police demanded identification from everyone in sight. When David Ward complied, knowing full well he didn't commit murder, police did what they always do when given ID: They ran his name through the National Crime Information Center computer. Lo and behold, David had an out-of-state warrant for his arrest, so he went to jail. But David didn't have to give his name and date of birth. He could have, and should have, simply remained silent and walked away. Unless the police had evidence that he was responsible for the shooting, at best they could have detained him for a short period of time while investigating the shooting.

Colorado law says that a person is required to give "name, address, identification if available, and an explanation of his actions" when asked to do so by the police. First, however, the police "must have a reasonable suspicion that the individual has committed, or is about to commit a crime; the purpose of the detention is reasonable; and the character of the detention is reasonable when considered in light of the purpose."

Police can't simply haul you in for refusing to speak to them, or for refusing a baseless demand for ID. Don't be pressured, don't be fooled.

Kudos to the frat boys and sorority girls for defending their civil liberties, and therefore ours. These students are good citizens, who have taken responsibility for helping clarify the proper role of police in a free society that's increasingly confused about matters of law.

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

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