Fight for your rights

By Ardee Napolitano

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Justin Surgent/Collegian

University of Massachusetts Police Department Officer Mark Whelihan and Attorney Corey Carvalho of Student Legal Services visited the Theta Chi fraternity house Thursday night to discuss the rights of individuals during face-to-face encounters with police officers.

“It’s amazing how many people I saw one night who had no idea what their rights were,” said Whelihan.

The talk, which was attended by about 20 students, focused on incidents involving student drivers pulled over by on-duty officers. The lecturers played a video titled “Busted,” which offered advice on how to react when in such situations.

According to the video, when an officer pulls a driver over, the driver should stay calm and follow instructions from the officer. Additionally, when the officer approaches the car, the driver should make his or her hands visible and avoid reaching into the glove box or the backseat.

“It’s always important that we see your hands on the steering wheel,” Whelihan said. “We have no idea who’s driving that car.”

When communicating with law enforcement, Whelihan also recommended that students remain polite, because police tend to base their demeanor on the driver’s behavior towards them.

On the other hand, Carvalho said drivers are not required to respond to every question posed by an officer. “You have no obligation to answer questions because they can and will be used against you.”

Carvalho advised students to counter officers’ intimidating questions with their own questions to demonstrate their knowledge of their rights.

He added that it is not a requirement for an officer to search a vehicle. Authorities have the so-called “plain view rule,” according to Carvalho, which allows officers to search a vehicle only if he or she sees something suspicious. Carvalho used examples including empty beer cans or a marijuana cigarette.

Otherwise, they cannot inspect the car, according to Carvalho, unless the driver agrees to the search.

“[Police] can ask you out of the car, but that does not automatically mean consent to be searched,” Carvalho said.

Furthermore, when the officer orders you to get out of the car, Carvalho recommended drivers close car windows and lock the doors. He said such steps help to avoid unwarranted searches by the police, especially when there are illegal substances inside the vehicle.

Whelihan added that it is practical for drivers to put their things in the trunk to ensure the protection of their privacy.

On the topic of transporting alcohol, Carvalho spoke of a common misunderstanding of the law. “This happens so often, it’s almost a misunderstanding of the law,” he said.

It is illegal for a person under 21 years of age to drive a car transporting liquor, even in the presence of a passenger of age. The driver is the owner of the contents of the vehicle, according to Carvalho.

Whelihan and Carvalho also spoke of encounters with police in public spaces.

“Being drunk in public is not a crime in Massachusetts,” Carvalho said. “It’s what [people] do when they get drunk.”

While it is legal in Massachusetts to be intoxicated in public, it is illegal to drink in public in the town of Amherst under the Open Container Law. Carvalho said that violators can be charged with fines up to $300.

The guidelines regarding unwarranted searches Carvalho said also apply in circumstances outside of a vehicle. Police can’t ask people to empty the contents of their bags, or even search their belongings by touching the exterior without the consent of the owner, according to Carvalho.

Though Whelihan said if a person acts outrageously while intoxicated in public, police are allowed to question and inspect them. Individuals engaging in behaviors like attempting to steal road signs, shouting abrasively or disturbing public spaces could be subject to search, he explained.

Furthermore, police cannot ask for someone’s identification, except in cases involving drivers and people who are buying or transporting alcohol, Carvalho said.

The attorney and police officer also spoke about marijuana law. Carvalho told students possession of up to an ounce of marijuana is legal in the state, though the sale and purchase of the substance is still illegal, regardless of the amount.

Near the end of the event, Whelihan told students to be aware of their rights to have smooth encounters with the police, and added that the best way to avoid such situations is to follow the law.

“The one stupid decision you make here can follow you for the rest of your life,” said Whelihan. “You don’t want that.”

Ardee Napolitano can be reached at [email protected]