I like to think that 2020 will one day be referred to as the “Year of Murphy’s Law;” whatever could have gone wrong, did go wrong. A noxious election cycle, a global pandemic and baffling restrictions on civil liberties, economic turmoil, and civil unrest resulting from further law enforcement abuses have all combined for a roller coaster of a year that feels as though the car could come flying off of the tracks.
If I could, however, pinpoint one positive in this maelstrom, it would be an increased interest in our rights under the law. But as I see more parents and individuals asking questions and seeking resources, I am occasionally confronted with the tired, abrupt criticism, “Maybe you should be teaching your children to respect authority instead of being delinquents.” It is worth noting that I cleaned that up a bit.
Interestingly, this charge never comes up when I speak with parents one-on-one; only when speaking to a broad audience, i.e. online. Whether I am speaking to an individual at a conference or when a parent reaches out with a question regarding my books, I find neither animosity nor apprehension. Still, this innocuous suggestion of “respecting authority” continues to pop up without fear of the squishy mallet ready to knock it back down.
So, is it disrespectful for a person to assert their rights when confronted by law enforcement?
Simply put, no. In fact, I consider it to be far more disrespectful to maintain an expectation of civilians to remain ignorant of or to waive their rights from the outset of an encounter.
Our rights under Due Process, framed in the Bill of Rights, are not arbitrary guidelines to be followed only when charges or suspicions are severe. Nor are they only there to protect the guilty, much to the chagrin of prosecutors and Law and Order viewers. They exist precisely to protect all persons within the boundaries of the United States, regardless of the charges against them (or lack thereof).
For those who believe that one should never talk back, mouth off, sass, or “be a smartass,” there is a clear misunderstanding here. When a person refuses to answer questions, declines to give consent for a warrantless search, or asks if they are free to go (and then leaves), they are acting under the law, as written in our Bill of Rights, enacted for our protection, and repeatedly reaffirmed by the courts (with some unfortunate blunders, i.e. Terry v. Ohio).
This is not an act of disrespect, but a clear statement of the law with an expectation that the officer abides by it. To expect someone to waive their rights, take advantage of their ignorance, or to become irate and even verbally and physically aggressive is the true measure of animus found in such encounters.
There is also a clear disrespect, when one waives their rights, to your fellow citizens. To do so willfully, even gleefully, is not only disrespectful of the law, but diminishes the power that our rights hold over state actors. As I once wrote for the Foundation for Economic Education, “An expectation of compliance, rather than law, under which we are protected from such actions, becomes the norm until that sudden, gentle resistance is regarded as a crime.” We not only put ourselves at risk when we waive our rights, knowingly or unknowingly, but we do irreparable harm to every person who will be stopped after us; we create a norm in which authority expects compliance and reviles legally protected resistance.
Here is the simple reality: no one waives their rights out of respect, regardless of what their tailgate tells you. No one consents to searches out of respect. No one consents to questioning or detainment out of respect. It is done out of fear. The only thing worse than submitting to authority out of fear is convincing yourself that it makes you a patriot.
If you truly wish to make a difference, drop the charade propped up by partisan politics, police procedurals on network television, and misunderstandings of the law. Teach your children their rights. Practice asserting their rights with them, so that they can do so in a calm, polite manner that is neither inflammatory, nor spiteful. Create a script for them to use. A knowledgeable and confident populace is the most powerful tool at our disposal. Respect your fellow Americans; never waive your rights.