By Lauren Drake
Students learned how to properly handle encounters with law enforcement and their rights as American citizens at the Flex Your Rights screening on Wednesday, May 11, hosted by the Western chapter of Young Americans for Liberty.
The meeting for Young Americans for Liberty, held in Academic Instructional Center West at 6 p.m., was organized with the support of Western Libertarians and Students for Sensible Drug Policy.
Sophomore Trey Brooke said that he believes the presentation was informative and that many people don’t know their rights.
“When people do exercise their rights properly, then there will be less crime committed by police officers,” Brooke said.
Retired Master Sgt. of the U.S. Army John Laigaie, a Bellingham local, lead the conversation about why citizens should educate themselves about their rights and put those rights into practice.
Laigaie emphasized that many people have fought and died throughout the years for rights that we proudly hold today as American citizens. Laigaie said if people aren’t educated about their rights then they can be taken away from them more easily and that devalues the efforts of all those who have fought for them. “A right unexercised is a right lost,” Laigaie said.
Western’s Young Americans for Liberty President Sean Rita is an aspiring police officer. Rita said he founded the club a year ago with the mission of educating students about the constitution and liberty.
Rita believes many students don’t know their rights and people don’t invest their time to learn them.
“While police officers are there to help us, a lot of the laws that they’re told to enforce are unjust,” Rita said. “If people are flexing their rights a lot of these people wouldn’t end up with a ticket, they wouldn’t end up in jail and eventually would get these laws off of the book and would eventually cause a chain reaction if they’re unconstitutional.”
Laigaie, who is also a member of the Whatcom County chapter for Washington State Open Carry, believes that it’s important for students to learn about their rights because they can be susceptible to police bullies.
“There are some law enforcement people who believe they understand the law better than they really do,” Laigaie said. “They make assumptions based on personal conviction.”
Retired campus police officer and Open Carry member Brian Barnes also spoke and gave the perspective of an officer. He believes that students are one of the most powerful demographics to stand up to law enforcement and should utilize this power to make change.
Their top advice for dealing with law enforcement officers is not to engage in consensual conversation with them. According to Barnes, everything that you say can and will be used against you, as the Miranda Rights state.
Laigaie told students that citizens who are stopped while not operating a vehicle aren’t legally obligated to provide the officer, whether it be local police, sheriffs, Transport Security Agents or other government officials, with any information or their identification documents. In this situation, one may simply ask the officer if they are being detained, then continue to repeat the question until an answer is given. However, the person must inform the officer that they are choosing to remain silent.
If someone is not being detained, they are free to go. Officers cannot legally keep someone without detaining them according to Laigaie.
If someone is being detained they should ask why and the officer must have reasonable and articulable suspicion that a law is being broken to detain, not just a feeling. At this time, one should ask for an attorney so they can be advised on the steps in dealing with the law, Laigaie said.
He clarified that things are a little different when operating a vehicle. By law, a driver is required to show their driver’s license, vehicle registration and proof of insurance to an officer who stops them. People are still not required to answer any questions or provide other information, but should still inform the officer that they are choosing to remain silent.
The Young Americans for Liberty recommend never consenting to a search. Whether it is of one’s person, their vehicle or home. Without a warrant, police are not allowed to enter.
The presenters encouraged people to always film their encounters with the police. They believe this is a good way to keep both parties honest and is a completely legal action.
Bellingham police officers have now implemented wearing jacket cameras on them at all times. Footage from these cameras may be requested, along with a police report after an encounter occurs. The speakers urged that people always request both of these pieces of evidence for their records and to make sure that their incident was recorded truthfully.
Their last piece of advice is to remain calm and collected. Even though encounters with law enforcement can be nerve-wracking, it is important to remember one’s rights and exercise them.
Rita said he believes that things tend to go wrong in dealing with police officers the most when people panic.
The Young Americans for Liberty suggests the YouTube channel “Flex Your Rights” for accurate, informational videos about citizens’ rights and how to handle encounters with law enforcement.