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Know Your Rights

A guide to help you protect your civil liberties.

Illustration by Emma D.

When I was 20, I was busted for underage drinking at an off-campus pub in Washington, D.C. But I wasn’t drunk—not even tipsy. Earlier that night, I had chickened out and decided against using a terrible fake ID a friend had procured: it depicted a woman who was six years older, five inches taller, and 20 pounds heavier than me.

When the time had come for my hand to get stamped at the door, I had admitted I wasn’t 21 and just wanted to hang out with my older friends. Impressed by my honesty, the doorman allowed me to enter and arranged for me to get unlimited free soda as a reward for coming clean.

Once inside, I had a blast playing pool and dancing to Britney. That is, until the cops arrived, blocked the exits, and started demanding IDs. During the frenzy, I saw my friends getting handcuffs slapped on their wrists, enduring searches and pat-downs, and being led to the police van.

When two cops zeroed in on me, I calmly explained to them that I was not drinking and attempted to show them the big black “x” the bouncer had drawn on my hand. One of the cops dismissed my explanation and told me they had “probable cause” to consider me in violation of the law, because I was in a place where alcohol was being served. She suggested she’d prove that I was lying by giving me a Breathalyzer test (she never gave me the opportunity to prove her wrong).

When I finally got the officers to ask the doorman if I had been drinking, he clicked his tongue, denied our previous interaction, and said he would never let anyone in without ID.

At that moment, I knew I was on my own. As the cops led me towards their van, I watched them cuff a friend who had used a fake ID and then lied about it. I noticed that they neglected to read her her Miranda rights and that they seemed pretty overzealous when they searched her.

I did not want to be next. Luckily, at that moment, I remembered that a civil liberties canvasser from campus had given me a little wallet card that was printed with information about what to do when confronted by police. Without hesitation, I whipped the card out and started reading the list LOUDLY so everyone could hear me.

What I read on the card made me feel pretty confident that the police didn’t really have enough evidence to prove I was involved in illegal activity, and that they lacked probable cause for a search. I told them so, even as they kept threatening me. I said that if they arrested me, I would maintain my right to silence and wouldn’t answer any additional questions without a lawyer present.

For a few of the longest minutes of my life, the police stared at me in silence. Finally, and with no real explanation, one said, “It’s late. You are released, go home.”

In college I’d participated in peaceful protests of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the IMF, and the World Bank, and regularly faced harassment and pepper spray from the police. But it wasn’t until that night at the bar that I realized how important it was to be informed about my civil liberties. I’ll never know exactly why the police decided to set me free when so many other people were arrested and booked, but I believe that it’s because I knew my rights.

Don’t get me wrong—I deeply respect the majority of police officers who protect and serve us. At the same time, I know through personal experience that we can’t always depend on cops to be fair. They mess up too.

So the next time you feel you’re being mistreated—whether it’s at a bar, a protest, a house party, in your car, riding the subway, or anywhere else out in the world—know your rights, and don’t be afraid to assert them.

Here are some tips for protecting yourself:

Get Busted before you get busted:
A good place to start is FlexYourRights.org. Their movie Busted: The Citizen’s Guide to Surviving Police Encounters is informative as well as entertaining, and I don’t just say that because a few of my friends are “acting” in the alcohol party scene. You can also buy FlexYourRights.org’s DVD, 10 Rules for Dealing with Police, and screen it for your friends before you hit the town.

Be informed:
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) provides a wealth of FREE resources to the public through podcasts, videos, and fact sheets that detail all the ways you can protect your personal freedoms. If you’re really inspired, become a member, attend their events, and connect with new friends via their campus and high school programs.

Carry the card:
Download and print out the ACLU’s wallet card, and carry it with you always. It tells you what to do if you’re stopped by the police, immigration agents, or the FBI.

Stand up for yourself:
I know how intimidating and scary it can be to disagree with authority figures, but remember that police officers are expected to obey the law, just like you. If you are underage and you think the police may have violated your rights, try to find a supportive adult in your life to discuss consulting with a lawyer and/or filing a complaint with your local police department or civil monitoring organization.

I hope none of you ever has to face mistreatment by the police, but it’s always good to be prepared. Getting arrested sucks, and you have way better stuff to do than be stuck in jail. ♦


  • rosiesayrelax July 5th, 2012 3:06 PM

    this is a very good article. and i would just like to say how all the illustrations and stuff on Rookie are always wonderful!

    Rosie Say Relax

  • Claire July 5th, 2012 3:11 PM

    This is very useful information. While it’s important to respect authority figures like police officers, it’s equally crucial to remember that they’re not infallible. Knowing your rights is so, so important.

  • Dino July 5th, 2012 3:15 PM

    This is an eye-opener! awesomness!

  • Isabellla July 5th, 2012 3:21 PM

    Wow good job standing up to the cop. I would have been pretty scared ha. They can be quite intimidating sometimes but I always think of how Jim Morrison referred to a police officer as ‘a little man in a little blue suit and a little blue cap’ I think they abuse their power a lot of the time anyway… thanks I will make sure I know my rights in case something similar happens to me :)


  • katrinaexplainsitall July 5th, 2012 3:25 PM

    This is very useful. The flexyourrights site is something everyone should look at.


  • Tara July 5th, 2012 3:42 PM

    I am so glad you wrote this because it’s important. It sucks that you had to deal with that situation but you are so strong for knowing your rights and standing up for yourself!
    Jamia, you rule, simply put.

  • keezey July 5th, 2012 3:52 PM

    Thank you for this! I hope I never have to use this info, but it would be useful to know just in case.

  • jenaimarley July 5th, 2012 4:13 PM

    Thank you for this!
    This is really relavent for me at the moment as a teenager in a state where scary laws like SB1070 are passed into law.


  • mayaautumn July 5th, 2012 4:31 PM

    great article!
    it’s strange because i was just watching a programme about police and drink driving etc which was really interesting. and then i came here and saw basically the same thing!


  • Jamia July 5th, 2012 4:57 PM

    Love Ya’ll, Thanks for the support–stay aware, stay informed and always make sure you know your rights. It has helped me through several sticky situations. xo

  • purrr July 5th, 2012 5:13 PM

    I think this is a really good article, but where do people go if they aren’t from America? I know Rookiw is primarily targeted at American teenage girls, but everyone around the world wants to know their rights :)

    Also, what do you do when you’re an American, but you are in a different country?

    Thanks for the article though, it’s very helpful. And I loved the story from your life.

    • Blythe July 5th, 2012 10:03 PM

      If you’re American and in a different country, there are instructions in the back of your passport. I was looking for my immigration stamps and I found them. :)

  • missmadness July 5th, 2012 6:16 PM

    honestly, I’ve never had a good experience with the police. I feel like whenever I’m not bothering anyone and just minding my own business, they’re all in my face, but the second that I actually need them (a store I worked at was robbed, and the cops took over an hour to show; likewise they didn’t respond to a gunfire call that was reported from a building full of children until we called them back 45+ minutes later) they’re nowhere to be found. I respect the fact that they’re willing to put their lives on the line, but I wish they’d allocate their resources a little more efficiently (in my town, they actually set up outside the taco bells/waffle houses late at night to catch any underage drinkers–not drunk drivers–passengers).

    • LizBeth July 5th, 2012 10:46 PM

      I know the feeling. In my own town, we have this food festival at which my friends and I have often been chased down and lectured for playing on the playground after dark… mean while, not ten feet away, kids are drunk and showing off their cigars!

      I’ve had a similar experience with teachers at my school, actually. They never fail to show when someone’s sharing a chair or playfully flicking a piece of broccoli at another student, but my friends and I (sophomores at the time) get shouted out of a table by a group of seniors in front of the entire cafeteria and where are they? Nowhere, and I /know/ they heard them.

      I know my experiences are far less serious than your own, but just because it’s easier to go off on a few kids who are being annoying rather than those who are actually doing something wrong doesn’t make it right. Even though I’m agnostic, I pray that my priorities won’t be that screwed up when I’m their age…

      My own over-blown trauma’s aside, thanks for this post, Rookie. I’m watching Busted now–it’s good to know I’ll be able to put my rights to use someday.

    • a-anti-anticapitalista July 6th, 2012 9:26 AM

      This is because they get more money the more people they stop/arrest/give a ticket to, so it is far more profitable for them to stop petty crimes that are quick and easy than to go stop bigger crimes that take more time to deal with.

  • ladylaurenia July 5th, 2012 7:05 PM

    Angelina Jolie has a tattoo on her neck that says “know your rights” I think it’s pretty cool, might get the same one after this article…

  • llamalina July 5th, 2012 9:17 PM

    i keep imagining you standing in the middle of the bar yelling your rights like a badass while everybody’s crying and getting arrested. you’re the coolest. i’m so going to print out that wallet card now.

  • Hedwig July 5th, 2012 10:38 PM

    Ahh thank you this is great

  • Harley July 5th, 2012 11:27 PM

    I am definitely printing out that wallet card! Thanks so much for the tips. It’s always good to know what to do in these sorts of situations.

  • cassandrabee July 5th, 2012 11:36 PM

    This is a great article! Just so readers know, though, police don’t have to Mirandize you if you’re under arrest, so long as they’re not planning to interrogate you.

  • sherbert July 6th, 2012 2:13 AM

    the cop in the picture kind of looks like a peacock…

  • Majel July 6th, 2012 7:39 AM

    Thanks for the eye-opener. I’m going to look up information on that subject that applies to my country.

  • a-anti-anticapitalista July 6th, 2012 9:28 AM

    I have the little red National Lawyers Guild book, they were giving them out to activists. Also whenever you are at a protest or demonstration make sure there are people with green hats- those are legal observers from the NLG.

    The police are unnecessary for the majority of the population and make actual justice difficult (or impossible). I hope we can soon live in a world free of people who have the ability to have power over others and abuse it and to protect one group of people over another, a world were restorative justice is the rule as opposed to something we have to struggle to even get in schools. :c

  • Dylan July 6th, 2012 1:56 PM

    Jaima is everyone’s guardian angel.

  • Jamia July 6th, 2012 3:07 PM

    Dylan: Oh, why thank you sweetness–sending you a big hug!

  • wissycosh July 7th, 2012 10:55 AM

    Great article!!! N.W.A <3

    It's also important to note that, the police work in a hierarchy. From rookie (which is fines) and street beats (policing the streets on busy holidays) till they are finished their official training and gain a higher place among the wonderful HQ of policeland! With this in mind, you could be used as a police target for the night, which means; you are on their to do list in making numbers, revenue raising and are objectified for their bookwork for the evening. In this case, be calm and respectful, answer politely and hope not for a fine (in the cases where you can tell of course that you may be getting a fine). If extra aggression is used and it doesn't feel right, silence and ask for your parents or legal actors.

  • Heartgirlxox July 8th, 2012 2:12 AM

    Thankyou for this!!! Although, I’m just wondering if there is something similar (like the wallet card) for people who do not reside in america (like people living in australia :D)… Thanks again!!

  • Cranberry July 10th, 2012 5:21 PM

    I’d love to know more about that issue in Switzerland.