Above The Law is a column featuring news and analysis on incarceration, policing, and the criminal justice system in Maine. The name evokes the extrajudicial actions and impunity of law enforcement that will be covered here, while also imploring citizens to think "above" and beyond the status quo to envision better ways of dealing with harm. Here, we will question and critique not only the conduct of law enforcement but the roles played by various institutions of justice in communities across the state and nation. Above The Law aims to elevate the perspectives, stories, and voices of impacted communities, reporting the ideas and work being done on the ground to advance new visions for justice, security, and accountability.
What do you do when the cops pull you over, or if you’re questioned while walking down the street? Do you have to let officers search your bag or look through your cell phone? When can you film the police?
In general, how should you handle interactions with law enforcement?
Knowing the answers to these questions might spare you a ticket, a fine, time in a cell, or expensive legal bills, and they’ll be the focus of an upcoming talk from 5:30-6:30 PM at the Portland Public Library on Tuesday, October 10.
“They Can’t Do That! Can They?” will be the latest presentation in a series hosted by the Maine Community Law Center. For this event, which is free and open to the public, Attorney William Adams will discuss “knowing your legal rights in specific situations and how to enforce them civilly, to help you balance the power between yourself and law enforcement.”
Such trainings have become increasingly popular in recent years in response to racial profiling, expanded and militarized police forces, and the increased criminalization of protesters. But their usefulness extends to the rest of the public as well.
Of course, knowing your rights isn’t a panacea for all interactions with the police. And even if you are fully aware of your rights, there is no guarantee that officers will respect them. Still, having such knowledge can protect you from giving up those rights unwittingly or out of fear.
In an interview with the Phoenix, Adams stressed that he sees the police as heroes and doesn’t want people to get away with breaking laws.
“This is not really intended to be an ‘us against them,’” he said. “It boils down to the Constitution and following laws, and I don’t think that there’s an officer out there who would say they don’t want the laws to be followed.”
“It’s just about, what can they do and what can we do? There’s going to be two sides to each situation.”
One of the subjects Williams will cover involves knowing what you should and shouldn’t say during police encounters. In general, when cops question you, they are starting with very little information.
“They’re listening to what you’re saying, and they’re going to use your words and help it fit within some statute,” he said. “You’re telling them what they need to charge you with. You should just keep your mouth closed as much as possible and answer only the questions that you’re required to answer.”
The Fifth Amendment to the Constitution protects people from self-incrimination and is an integral part of due process that ensures members of the public are not unjustly deprived of life, liberty, or property.
It’s why law enforcement must read you your Miranda Rights, informing you of your right to silence, when you’re under arrest or interrogation.
But if you’re just being stopped and questioned, the police are not required to remind you of this important right.
“They’re going to ask you some questions, and you can answer or not, depending on what the question is. But they will jump at the opportunity to use any information they gain to enforce the laws as they see them needing to be enforced. Less is more,” Williams said.
Knowing these rights can be important for everyone — from teenagers who are just starting to drive to undocumented immigrants. But Williams sees it as especially important for people who have low incomes and are of modest means.
“If you’ve got $15,000 in your bank account, you can easily go hire an attorney and that’s going to help you. If you’ve got $15 in your bank account and you don’t know how you’re going to keep the heat going next week, then you’re at the mercy, in a criminal situation, of the assistant district attorney, who’s going to end up prosecuting the case.”
“Our legal system was designed to have zealous advocates on both sides of the aisle and if you can’t afford an attorney then you’re not going to fare as well.”
This is why the Maine Community Law Center was founded in 2015: to provide affordable legal services to average people. The nonprofit organization is devoted to bridging what’s known as “the justice gap,” which refers to a serious legal and financial obstacle posed to those who make too much money to qualify for free assistance from legal aid groups and those who cannot afford representation by larger legal firms, which typically charge hundreds of dollars per hour.
Williams and the other attorneys at the Maine Community Law Center believe knowledge is power, and that’s why they are hosting these informational sessions each month. “We’re just there to help impart a little legal knowledge and maybe it’ll raise more questions.”
“Maybe you’ll want to come and do a little research or talk to someone, but we want people to be informed. We want them to know their rights, where they stand in the eyes of the law, and we’re going to keep doing it.“
“Anyone and everyone can be hauled into court under the authority of the state at any given time if they just make a mistake,” he said. “Really, everyone should just know their rights.”