Citizens’ Rights

Lydia Howell & Michelle Gross
Communities United Against Police Brutality

Consider the following situations where civilians driving to work or to the store are stopped by police “on suspicion”: having a burned-out tail light; driving a car that seems too old or too new for them; being in a high crime neighborhood; appearing to be out of place in a suburban neighborhood. In addition, we have heard about neighborhood searches in the name of “war on drugs.” In these instances, police can search a person’s car, home or self simply for living in or passing through the targeted neighborhood. Police may use tear gas or stun grenades and massive gunfire on private homes. Consequently, civilians may suffer disrespect, humiliation, arrests without charges and sometimes injuries or death.

Six months of data collected by the Minneapolis police show that, while African-Americans constitute approximately 14 % of the population, they are 60 % of those arrested. In 12 categories analyzed by the Minneapolis Star Tribune,African-Americans were arrested and jailed at much higher rates than whites. Especially telling are those crimes involving police discretion, such as “lurking with intent.” African-Americans are 27 times more likely to be arrested on this charge than whites, although conviction rates for African-Americans and whites are virtually identical (12 and 13%, respectively). In addition, unarmed people, such as the mentally ill, have been killed by multiple gunshots by police.

Other situations in which police and other crime fighting organizations have abused their authority include protests. Police have functioned to suppress First Amendment rights of public assembly and protest. The use of pepper spray, rubber bullets, concussion grenades and other assault weapons on nonviolent protesters, legal observers and journalists is a disturbing trend. Recently, there have been a number of pre-emptive arrests of organizers on phony charges to prevent protests from happening at all.

What resources do citizens have when police act unjustly? Police agencies have Internal Affair Units (IAU). However, these units handle only the most egregious incidents. Minneapolis has a Civilian Review Authority (CRA), but it is without investigative resources or subpoena power. It can only make recommendations to the chief of police and cannot discipline officers. The mayor and police chief hand-pick members of the CRA. The State Human Rights Commission specifically exempts police from being cited for civil rights violations. The U.S. Justice Department rarely investigates local police departments.

Civilians have filed lawsuits for their injuries or on behalf of a relative killed by police and have won occasionally substantial judgements. Most people, however, do not have the resources to pursue these actions, and most attorneys will not take such cases. Even successful lawsuits have not resulted in abusive officers being disciplined, fired or prosecuted for their conduct.

What you should do:

  • Get involved in citizen activism.
  • If you witness a possible unjust incident, do not interfere. Write down as much information about the officers and the event as you can.
  • If the police stop you in a traffic incident, remain calm and keep your hands in view. If asked, you must provide your name, address and social security number. You must also provide your driver’s license, proof of insurance and vehicle registration. You are not required to give any further information, and you may say no if they ask to search your vehicle. Minneapolis and St. Paul police are required to give you their business card if they search your vehicle.


Read Up

Police Brutality, Jill Nelson, ed., 2000

Act Locally
Communities Against Police Brutality
2441 Lyndale Ave S
Minneapolis, MN 651-649-4579

Institute on Race and Poverty
University of Minnesota Law School

National Lawyers Guild Minnesota Chapter
1360-F University Ave W
St. Paul, MN

Protecting Your Rights as Citizens

Reprinted from 2000 Slingshot Organizer 

You don’t have to talk to the police, FBI agents or investigators. You do not have to talk to them on the street, if you’ve been arrested or if you’re in jail. Only a judge has the authority to order you to answer any questions. 

Keep Quiet 

Anything you say to a FBI agent or cop may be used against you and other people. Once you’ve been stopped or arrested, you can’t talk you way out of it. Don’t try to engage cops in a dialogue or respond to accusations. If you are nervous about simply refusing to talk, you may find it easier to tell them to contact your lawyer. Once a lawyer is involved, the police usually back off because they’ve lost their power to intimidate. The police are very skilled at getting information from people, so attempting to outwit them is very risky. You can never tell how a seemingly harmless bit of information can hurt you or someone else. Don’t lie to the police. Lying to the police is a crime. If you’ve been arrested, don’t talk about anything sensitive in police cars or jail cells and don’t talk to other inmates. You are probably being recorded. 

Pay Attention 

You do not have to let the FBI or police into your home or office unless they have a search or arrest warrant. Demand to see the warrant. It must specifically describe the place to be searched and the things to be seized. If they have a warrant, you have a right to observe what they do. You should take written notes of what they do, their names, badge numbers, etc. Have friends who are present act as witnesses. Even if they present a warrant, you so not have to tell them anything other than your name and address. 


If the police try to search you, your car, or your home, without a warrant, say repeatedly that you do not consent to the search, but do not physically resist. 

Get Help 

If you are arrested, tell them “I don’t want to talk until my lawyer is present.” You have a right to make three phone calls if you have been arrested on state charges and booked into jail. Demand this right. Stay Alive.

Citizens’ Rights

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