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Happy Constitution Day!

Constitution Day is an opportunity to celebrate the fundamental rights and freedoms we enjoy as Americans. But for many, it also provides an occasion to take note of all the ways in which the promise of liberty handed down by our forefathers has been broken time and again as our criminal justice system grows sufficiently enormous to terrify even the best-behaved among us.
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Marijuana: It’s Still Illegal

New FBI data shows that more people were arrested for marijuana last year than ever before. It’s a harsh reminder that police still spend a lot of time and resources trying to catch people with small amounts of pot.
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Rachel Hoffman: Another Reason to Know Your Rights

ABC’s 20/20 covers the tragic death of 23-year-old Florida girl, Rachel Hoffman. Caught with what the Tallahassee police chief described as “about a baggie” of marijuana, she was tricked/blackmailed/threatened into becoming a police informant.

The chief blames Rachel for her death, repeatedly calling her a drug criminal. But it is clear that he is a scoundrel defending incompetent, callous officers who sent a sheep into a lions’ den.

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We Support NYPD’s Plan to Use Written Consent Forms

Since many of our supporters may be skeptical of NYPD when it comes to matters of search and seizure, I’d like to clarify that this is a very good thing:

The New York City Police Department wants suspects to sign a consent form before searching their homes or cars, a move that eliminates the need for a warrant and is meant to provide police a layer of legal protection, Newsday has learned.

The initiative was put in place because consent searches are often challenged at trial – and jurors too often believe the suspect’s claim that police never got permission to conduct the search, police sources said.

At the same time, sources said, there has been concern within the NYPD about a handful of cases in which an officer’s truthfulness was recently called into question. [Newsday]

Written consent policies are a win-win situation for police and the public. When consent is given in writing, police have an easier time demonstrating in court that consent was given voluntarily. Since evidence seized during a consent search is almost always legally admissible, defendants challenging such evidence must argue that consent was given involuntarily or not at all. As a result, police spend a considerable amount of time in court defending the manner in which consent was obtained. A written form goes a long way towards resolving such conflicts.

For the citizen, written consent provides a quick reminder that permitting searches is optional, while simultaneously creating an added layer of protection in disputes over whether consent was given voluntarily. The form will go a long way towards resolving widespread concerns about police erroneously claiming to have received consent before conducting a search.

Finally, there’s an additional important point illustrated here. As Newsday reports, “jurors too often believe the suspect’s claim that police never got permission to conduct the search, police sources said.” For anyone questioning the viability of refusing consent during a police encounter, this should go a long way towards explaining how asserting 4th Amendment rights can help citizens achieve a more desirable outcome. It serves as a helpful reminder that, even if police violate your rights and search despite your refusal, any evidence they discover can be effectively challenged in court. Obviously, this is a frequent occurrence if NYPD cites such outcomes as a reason for moving towards a written consent policy.

Given the significance of the citizen’s decision whether or not to permit police to look through his/her belongings, a written form is just the obvious, common sense approach to establishing whether consent was given.

Update: Pete Guither at DrugWarRant has a good post discussing the NYPD policy and explaining why it is never in the citizen’s interest to consent to a police search.

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