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So Protesters, How Well Do You Know Your Rights?

Let’s say you’ve just been detained by police at an anti-war demonstration and the cops begin asking you questions. Perhaps they want to look in your bag. Maybe you’re already under arrest and officers are encouraging you to “tell your side of the story.” What should you say?

Before you head off to another protest march – or just a night on the town–bone up on your constitutional rights with a useful new book entitled “Beat the Heat: How to Handle Encounters with Law Enforcement.” Written by criminal defense attorney Katya Komisaruk, “Beat The Heat” teaches you how to invoke your rights and resist police pressure to say things that can be used against you in court. It can’t guarantee that you’ll win your criminal case, but it will certainly increase the odds in your favor.

Dissecting the rules of law enforcement, Komisaruk explains why a person under arrest should remain silent and ask to see a lawyer. She offers sample arrest and search warrants so you can practice looking for information that tells you whether a warrant is valid. Other chapters review safety tactics during arrest, the rights of minors, the rights of non-US citizens, grand juries, and how to report police misconduct.

“Beat The Heat” covers legal concepts, such as the level of proof needed by police to initiate a conversation, detain and arrest you. It lists the protections offered by your Miranda Rights. But Komisaruk also provides direct advice and teaches you how to use the law to protect yourself. Stopped by an officer who wants to talk? Ask whether you are free to go, and if so, leave immediately. Never give consent for law enforcement officers to search. When served with an arrest warrant, Komisaruk advises that you close the door behind you and do not admit police into your house. And as soon as you perceive you are not free to go, say those Magic Words. “I’m going to remain silent. I would like to see a lawyer.” Do not, says Komisaruk, attempt to win at word games with the police.

Other authors have published “know your rights” manuals. But “Beat the Heat” make this information accessible by offering a series of law enforcement scenarios presented as cartoons. Just when the suspect does or says something that will hurt their legal defense, a cartoon narrator named Sibyl Rites intervenes and discusses how to handle the situation correctly. Sibyl then sends the suspect back to the moment when the mistakes began so they can act appropriately the second time.

One cartoon, entitled “Narc In The Park,” points out that undercover officers are allowed to lie about their identity, buy, sell and consume illegal drugs with you. The chapter discusses entrapment and reminds readers that there is no reliable way to determine who is informant or political infiltrator. Another cartoon entitled “My Lawyer Made Me Do It” demonstrates how a minor can resist interrogation when police, probation officers and parents are all demanding that she answer questions. In the “Five-Finger Discount” cartoon, Sibyl Rites explains to a young woman accused of shoplifting why she should not sign a merchant confession form. The text then lists tricks used to coerce people into giving up their Miranda Rights. It includes a sample “Waiver of Rights,” “Promises To Appear” and other forms to help you understand what and what not to sign.

If you only read one chapter of “Beat The Heat,” turn to Chapter Four “Resisting Interrogation.” While it’s unlawful for police to beat you into confessing, Komisaruk notes that it is perfectly legal for police to lie while they are interrogating you, lie about evidence and even create false documents to fool you into talking. In a cartoon called “Good Cop Bad Cop” a young man finds out that the game is rigged when he comes up against a team of officers. Komisaruk also cautions reader to be aware of the paranoia that tends to set in when people are separated. In the “Rat Jacket” cartoon, two defendants in separate jail cells run into an officer who dupe them into thinking each has snitched on the other and then gets them to talk.

This chapter also features some classic interrogation lines such as, “You’re not a suspect, we are simply investigating here. Just help us understand what happened and then you can go.”And the most common trick of all, “Look if you don’t answer my questions, I won’t have any choice but to take you to jail. This is your chance to tell your side of the story.” Komisaruk notes that here the cops have already made up their minds to take you to jail. She reminds readers that the time to “explain everything,” is when you have an attorney with you to make sure you won’t be misled, misunderstood or misquoted. Not when you are alone with a cop who is building a case against you. While few people want to irritate an arresting officer by asking for a lawyer, Komisaruk notes that the truth is not your shield, at least not when you are being questioned and arrested.” Beat The Heat” includes a transcript of an actual interrogation where a suspect does not effectively invoke his rights.

Komisaruk is especially skillful at debunking two common misconceptions about remaining silent. The first is that once people invoke their rights, nothing they say afterward can be used against them. The second is that it’s OK to make informal conversation as long as you “don’t give a confession.” Many people also worry that if they don’t cooperate fully with police and answer questions, officers will increase the charges against them. Komisaruk points out that higher charges are more likely if you give the police additional information. Prosecutors can almost always find something in a suspect’s statement that can be used against them.

Komisaruk observes that far too many people are in prison on this country – 2 million at the latest count – and many are low income people of color and young men. “Beat The Heat,” which features characters of various ethnicities, was written especially for these readers. The final chapters of “Beat The Heat” review how to get out of jail while your case is pending, how to work with your lawyer, confidentially issues, representing yourself, and how much to tell your lawyer. Komisaruk adds that the USA PATRIOT Act, has greatly expanded the government’s surveillance powers. She reviews what type of surveillance requires a warrant or other court order, and the kind of information that can be gathered from phone calls and Internet activity. Celebrity defense attorney Johnnie L. Cochran, Jr. has written an endorsement for “Beat the Heat” in which he points out that “Such knowledge can cut back on lawyers fees, possibly reduce jail time, and can help one be an active participant in one’s legal situation rather than sitting in the sidelines in a cloud of confusion during this stressful time.”

“Beat The Heat” ends with several appendices including very useful tips on how to behave when in jail. Some of the advice in this book might be tough for certain people to swallow, such as the recommendation that you use a humble tone of voice and facial expressions when dealing with police. Readers should also have been warned that statements made to reporters can be used as evidence against them. And “Beat The Heat” lacks a detailed discussion of whether or not you have to identify yourself to police. Requirements for ID is based on jurisdiction and the issue is now being reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court. Like all legal advice books, “Beat The Heat” runs the risk of going out of date as laws change. But Komisaruk has tackled this problem by posting an updatable version of “Beat The Heat,” on her Web site http://www.lawcollective.org/ together with streaming video of a police misconduct scenario and audio clips of actual interrogations. The book can also be ordered off this site or from www.akpress.org.

But overall, these flaws are minor. Komisaruk knows the value of good legal advice. In 1987 she was sentenced to five years in federal prison for protesting against nuclear weapons. Applying to law school from behind bars, she went on to graduate from Harvard Law School and is now a lawyer with the Just Cause Law Collective in Oakland, California. Komisaruk now works with activists and attorneys around the country to develop legal strategies that protect citizens’ civil rights during large-scale demonstrations. She points out that knowing your rights is especially important at this time in history when the political climate is more accepting of police practices such as infiltration and manipulative interrogation techniques. Law enforcement increasingly rationalizes their actions as necessary tactics in the war on drugs or terrorism. Komisaruk notes that the primary casualties of these campaigns are people of color, people who are poor and activists. It’s up to all of us to defend our rights. “Beat The Heat” shows us how.

ANN HARRISON is a reporter who has covered the deeds and misdeeds of law enforcement for fifteen years. She writes the “At Liberty” column from San Francisco. She can be reached at: ah@well.com

 

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