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When Rights Might Be Wrong 

A Tulane 'Street Law' program poses the question: Should high school kids assert their constitutional rights during police stops?

Stop, frisk. These are the verbs of the day in this 12th-grade English class.

A handful of Tulane University law students and a faculty advisor are conducting a "Street Law" workshop for a classroom of kids at Joseph S. Clark Senior High, located on Rocheblave Street a few blocks away from the Calliope housing project. English teacher Denise Douglas has invited the Tulane students into her class this morning.

First off is a role play. One young woman from the Tulane group slips on a Walkman and a backpack. She's approached by a tall male colleague with a fake badge and toy handcuffs. He asks her in a gruff voice where she's going and what she has in that backpack.

Seann Riley, a dark-haired third-year law student, steps forward. "Does she have to answer the cop's questions?" The classroom hums. Riley allows the kids a few minutes of discussion, then speaks again.

"Legally," Riley says, "you do not have to answer his questions. But what will happen to you if you don't?" One student with short braids suggests that response won't be positive. "They're going to handle you," he says. The room buzzes in agreement.

Riley nods his head. "They probably won't hassle you as much if you give your name. Name, how old you are, basic info -- that's okay to give him."

Street Law programs like this first sprang up 30 years ago. The idea originated at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, D.C.; it's now spread to dozens of law schools across the nation. Riley, a former high school teacher and social worker, began organizing Tulane's program last spring.

The Street Law concept can take different forms. For more than a decade, Loyola University has been sending its Street Law students into some local classrooms for a few hours a week -- they make visits for an entire semester to teach voting rights, family law, and civil and criminal law. Tulane's students opted for one-time, hour-long classroom visits.

During the Tulane workshops, students are given common-sense advice (don't talk, be polite, don't lie, don't run). The Tulane sessions also emphasize constitutional rights. Riley explains how an officer can, for his own safety, give you a weapons pat-down if you're stopped. But if he asks you to empty your pockets or open your backpack, you can say no. Moreover, says Riley, the officer should not -- without reason -- reach into your pockets.

One student raises her hand. "Isn't it illegal," she asks Riley, "for a male officer to search a female?" (Answer: A female officer would be sent out for anything more than a weapons pat-down.) Another girl remarks that she's noticed that police officers usually ask, "Do you have anything on you?" Should she follow the general Street Law advice and stay silent? (Answer: If you say anything, you're agreeing to a search.) Someone asks, can the police come into your house on a drug-related search and leave with your money? (Riley notes that money can be seized because it's considered part of a drug operation.)

Then a broad-shouldered kid asks a question that gets lots of attention: "We were just standing around, and they put us in the car and started patting us down. Can they do that?" The answer is, in general, no. A discussion follows about some of the circumstances that might make it permissible.

It becomes clear that almost every student in this class -- whether straight-A or straight-F -- already has had first-hand encounters with the police. Of course, inner-city kids have never been strangers to law-enforcement officers. But observers say that police encounters in the U.S. have increased in the last decade through a combination of zero-tolerance laws, key Supreme Court decisions, and "proactive" patrol units that cruise neighborhoods looking for suspicious activity.

Still, not everyone agrees on the proper response. Should teenagers -- or anyone else -- assert their constitutional rights when stopped by police? The concept seems worrisome to some within the Orleans Parish criminal-justice system. "It's just asking for trouble," says a former probation officer. "No police officer is going to say, 'Oh okay, young man, you've said no and so I won't search your pockets.'" That kid, suggests the probation officer, might as well ask to be handcuffed and thrown in the back of an New Orleans Police Department squad car.

Detective Terrance Wansley says that teenagers hardly need yet another reason to be rebellious. "So I have trepidation about telling young people -- who already have problems with authority figures anyway -- that if police go in your pockets, it's a search not a frisk, and therefore you should protest that your rights are being violated."

Wansley is a 16-year New York Police Department veteran and the co-founder of 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care, a group that came into the national spotlight a few years ago for its outspoken criticism of racial profiling by the NYPD.

The group 100 Blacks conducts workshops in New York schools, but with a different emphasis than the Street Law programs. "Our objective is strictly survival," Wansley explains. "Because proving that you're right or wrong is less compelling than living to tell the story later on."

Wansley contends that most instances of police brutality or death start out with someone challenging the authority of a police officer. "What we're saying," notes Wansley, "is, 'Know your rights. Understand what is appropriate or inappropriate. But under no circumstances should you assert those rights during a confrontation situation.'"

If kids feel that they've been mistreated, they should, after the fact, ask an adult to accompany them and file an official complaint. But don't, Wansley reiterates, protest during the encounter itself. "Your rights have no place on the side of the road or in a dark alley," he says, because things can escalate very quickly. "You're going to say, 'You can't search me.' Then 'boom'" -- Wansley imitates a gunshot -- "there's only one story told now. What good did it do to assert your rights? Absolutely nothing."

Tulane Associate Professor Jancy Hoeffel, a former public defender and the faculty advisor for the Street Law visit to Clark Senior High, acknowledges that much of this hinges on the officers involved. "The reality," she says, "is that either the officers will respect their rights or they will search their backpacks anyway." She points out that, in Street Law, the teachers are also the students because the Tulane law students learn about cases first-hand instead of reading them in books.

"They're being educated," says Hoeffel, "about the things that happen in New Orleans every day."

Following the Clark high school workshop, teacher Denise Douglas divided her students into groups and assigned essays about the topic. Many essay writers seemed thrilled to know their specific rights during police encounters. One group wrote, "The only time you have to answer questions is if you look suspicious or fit the description of a suspect. For any other reason you may want to take down his badge number or the car number and report him in for harassment."

The winning essay -- written by Keyonna Valentine, Khary Dumas, Walter Lewis and Tamyra Maxwell -- noted that one of their classmates had been stopped by a cop after the Street Law workshop. "I wasn't as scared," he told the group, "because I knew my rights as a citizen."

Attached to that essay was a little rap written by a member of their group. It began: "We learned that cops are supposed to protect and serve. Yet most of them harass and disturb, they handcuff you on the curb and tell you not to say a word. All cops are not bad, but they all are not good. They stop young people because they live in high-crime neighborhoods."

In a way, that rap sums up Seann Riley's reasons for launching the Street Law program at Tulane. One image seared in his mind, he says, is kids who automatically lean against a wall and adopt a frisk position when they're approached by a squad car.

In New York, Detective Wansley knows that image too; he calls it "a tragic result of the practices of our time." He realizes that inner-city kids often feel singled out. He knows how that feels. "But when I get stopped, which is not infrequently," Wansley notes, "the only thing a police officer finds on me is my car keys." Wansley says that each student must, first of all, concentrate on "being right."

Wansley continues: "I'm not saying that it's appropriate for an officer to say, 'He's a black kid, it's 11 o'clock at night, the lights are dim, I'm going to make him empty his pockets.' But why get into a push-and-shove or maybe a shooting match if all you have is your car keys? Now if you have an eight-ball of cocaine, that's a different story."

Seann Riley says that, in a perfect world, kids wouldn't carry contraband in their pockets. "But the reality is, they do." And so the Street Law program addresses those problems as well. One scenario concerns an officer who stops a carful of kids and begins sifting through their backpacks. "He finds a dime-bag of weed," says one law student, "and he holds it up and says, 'Whose is this?'" The law student looks out at Denise Douglas' class and quips: "Now, you've been through the Street Law program, so you know to remain silent."

One of the girls wrinkles her nose a little and says, "Remaining silent would help?" Her question is covered up by the big voice of a young man who asks exuberantly: "Can I say no if they say take the stuff out of your pockets and take off your shoes?"

Riley sums up the Street Law approach: "You always have to assert that right and say no. If he searches anyway, then talk to your lawyer." Seven other hands shoot into the air, ready to ask a question.

click to enlarge One Tulane student slips on a Walkman and a backpack. She's approached by a tall male colleague with a fake badge and toy handcuffs. The topic of the day is, 'Does she have to answer the cop's questions?' - TRACIE MORRIS
  • Tracie Morris
  • One Tulane student slips on a Walkman and a backpack. She's approached by a tall male colleague with a fake badge and toy handcuffs. The topic of the day is, 'Does she have to answer the cop's questions?'
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