This story from New Orleans shows how great the stakes can be during even the most routine encounter with police. Suppose a friend carelessly leaves a little pot in your car…

The flood of new felony charges didn’t target murderers, rapists or armed robbers — they targeted small-time marijuana users, sometimes caught with less than a gram of pot, and threatened them with lengthy prison sentences.

The resulting impact has clogged the courts with non-violent, petty offenses, drained the resources of the criminal justice system and damaged low-income African-American communities, [Orleans Public Defenders Office Chief of Trials Steve] Singer said.

A first-time marijuana possession charge in Louisiana is a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in prison but typically results in a small fine. A second offense is a felony that can carry up to five years in jail and a third offense up to 20 years.

Some say Landrum-Johnson’s decision to buck history and charge marijuana users with felonies is a political decision meant to assist in her run for Orleans Criminal District Court Section E judgeship. By prosecuting thousands of marijuana possession cases as felonies, Landrum-Johnson can then go to the voters of New Orleans and claim she is “tough on crime,” [Tulane University criminologist Peter] Scharf said. She can point to the massive increase in felony prosecutions under her tenure without explaining that those prosecutions were for people holding joints and not guns, he said. [New Orleans CityBusiness]

All of this serves to illustrate the magnitude of the injustices still taking place in our criminal justice system on a daily basis. Laws vary from one place to the next, as do the personalities of the people enforcing them. It is not uncommon for disturbingly harsh penalties to remain on the books unenforced, only to one day be thrust upon an unwitting offender at the whim of a politically motivated prosecutor. Even in regions where marijuana enforcement is notoriously lenient, such as the west coast, one can still lose federal financial aid for college based on a minor possession conviction. Moreover, marijuana itself is ubiquitous, creating limitless potential for it to be found in the vicinity of innocent people.

So knowing your rights isn’t just for pot-smokers (although any American who enjoys marijuana should know the 4th amendment like they know their own name). The point is that the volume of unjust outcomes produced by our criminal justice system remains far too great for that system to be regarded as infallible by any sensible person. The fact that a law exists which authorizes a 5 year felony sentence for second-time marijuana possession and that prosecutors are actually enforcing that law ought to more than establish the deep fallibility that often characterizes the administration of justice in our nation.

In this climate, asserting your rights is not a perfect or foolproof solution, but it is indeed the method by which our forefathers intended for average people to shield themselves from government abuse. And it often works beautifully. So as we wait for meaningful and lasting reforms to finally purge our criminal justice system of the gratuitous disparities and injustices that continue to fester before our eyes, at least we know what to say when the long arm of the law swings in our direction: “Officer, I don’t consent to searches. Am I free to go?”