Legal Services wants students to know their rights in police encounters
As the weather warms and with the end of the academic year looming, it is safe to say everyone is starting to get a little bit of spring fever. Students sometimes tend to get a bit more rowdy at the culmination of the spring semester, and with a bit of sun-infused emboldening, students may find themselves coming into unwanted contact with police.
Corey M. Carvalho, the associate director at the University of Massachusetts Student Legal Services Office, said in a phone interview last week that his office wants to help students be prepared and informed in the event they find themselves scrutinized by a representative of the law.
Carvalho addressed the fact that the Amherst police know when major “party weekends” take place, and that they plan accordingly by adding patrols and checkpoints. Officers from the APD are spread across the community on such weekends and are primarily looking to ensure that peace is kept in Amherst and that laws are enforced.
“By living in a college town, you do not waive you right to live in a peaceful community, so students need to be respectful of those living in Amherst,” explained Carvalho.
Carvalho presented a series of tips for students on how to handle interactions with police, specifically surrounding Fourth Amendment rights, noise violations and keg violations.
Students generally don’t understand that unless the police have articulated they are detaining an individual, that individual is generally free to go, Carvalho said.
“If an officer stops you, politely ask if you are being detained or if you a free to go,” he cautioned. “If he says that you are free to go, then he can ask you questions or you can just walk away,” said Carvalho.
“Detaining someone has implications of the Fourth Amendment,” he continued. “Police need reasonable suspicion in order to stop you, and they need enough probable cause to ask to search your backpack,” said Carvalho of situations which may play out when students could hypothetically be transporting spirits.
Carvalho furthered discussed some rights students have but which they may be unaware of. In a situation where a student is carrying a backpack and a police officer asks what is in the bag and the student voluntarily tells or opens the bag, that is legally considered consent. If one doesn’t have any contraband in one’s backpack, it is in one’s best interest to give consent.
“Don’t lie,” said Carvalho, which he said is a common mistake students make which can land them in further trouble.
“If an officer asks you to empty your pockets and you do, you have consented to a search. Consent can be interpreted by actions as well as stated verbally,” Carvalho added.
Carvalho pointed out by adding that students can defuse potentially negative experiences by simply being friendly and amenable.
“While it is important to know your rights, sometimes it doesn’t make sense to try to assert them. If an officer is just going to ask you to dump out a beer, just do it. Be polite.”
Carvalho also noted one hinging point in police encounters: police cannot legally frisk detained individuals, he said, unless they believe they are armed.
“Police cannot pat you down unless you appear to be armed and dangerous, and the police have to articulate that. This kind of stop is called a Terry stop and is a two-part process. The police can stop you and question you, and then if you appear to be dangerous with a weapon or they feel threatened, they can then pat you down. Generally, holding a can of beer is not enough to articulate the need for a pat down,” he said.
Amherst also strictly enforces open container violations, Carvalho said.
“An open container includes an open beer can, red Solo cups with alcohol in them, water bottles, and anything else alcohol can be consumed out of,” he said. “If an officer stops you and you’re in possession of any of these in a public area such as a street or sidewalk, you can either be arrested or summonsed to court,” he continued.
He then pointed out another key distinction: if an individual is on private property, police cannot stop them for open container violations.
“If a police officer is standing on the street and you are on a private lawn and he asks you to come talk to him, make sure that you put down your open container before entering the public street or sidewalk,” he advised.
Carvalho then moved to party situations, stating that police tend to make mass arrests at large gatherings in an attempt to quell such scenarios.
“In situations where there are large crowds of people, the police are more likely to arrest people rather than summons them in order to stop them at that moment from engaging in criminal activity,” he said.
Police are also often prepared to issue an order of dispersal, Carvalho said. If a crowd fails to disperse after they make such a decree, everyone present is automatically in violation of the law.
Noise violations are another area of the town bylaws the Amherst police strictly enforce, Carvalho said. According to the town bylaws, it is unlawful for any person or groups of people to make, help, or to prolong excessive and unnecessary noise that others may find annoying or disturbing.
“If the police determine that there is a noise violation, anyone involved in making the noise can be arrested,” Carvalho said. “If the police issue a nuisance house violation, the residents of that house can each be subject to a $300 fine.”
In addition, police cannot enter a residence without a proper warrant, he said. However, there are multiple exceptions to the warrant rule.
“If you open the door to your home, whatever the police can see in plain view may allow them access to the home,” Carvalho explained. “If there is a medical emergency or if someone who the police are in pursuit of enters a home, the police can enter that home.”
As most students know, one basic ingredient for any successful house party is a large supply of alcohol, which sometimes comes in the form of a keg. The Town of Amherst requires that party-throwers obtain a keg license through the police department. If party organizers fail to secure a license and are caught with a keg on their premises, each individual who is a tenant in such residences can be subject to a $300 fine for each keg.
Carvalho concluded by boiling down the primary ways to survive an encounter with the police.
“Stay calm. Be polite. Assert your rights in an acceptable manner. Have fun, but try to avoid situations that will beg for police attention and intervention,” he said.
Any student is welcome to contact the Student Legal Services Office with questions about any legal matter before or after problems arise.
Ashley Berger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.