The Right to Remain Silent

Sep 14 2010 Published by under politics

Found this great piece where one citizen blogger describes being detained by Customs and Border Protection officers for refusing to answer questions when he returned from vacation. This should be taught in Civics classes, or whatever they call it these days. From my newest read-daily-blog, Knife Tricks. [found by way of Boing Boing]

The bottom line here is a U.S. citizen’s only obligations upon re-entering the country are to show proof of citizenship and declare goods purchased overseas. You may be questioned if your citizenship documents are suspect, however, that’s it. As the author says, “You don’t have to answer questions about where you went, why you went, who you saw, etc.” Further, there is no situation where a U.S. Citizen can be compelled to answer questions from a law enforcement officer. Even if you are under arrest, and only then after you have retained a lawyer. Given the U.S. government’s continued assault on the rights of its citizens since 9/11, I think the author demonstrates a much-needed reminder. Even those who are aware of their rights are often afraid to exercise them in the current political climate.

I’m surprised so many commenters on both the author’s blog and the Boing Boing piece took issue with the writer. If you don’t use rights, you lose them. Unless citizens push back against the government, the government will continue to repeal our rights. The government used 9/11 to begin a rollback of the rights of U.S. citizens. The attack has continued in the face of complete absence of opposition, let alone just some kind of questioning of the government’s self-appointed authority.

When the Bill of Rights was written into the Constitution, it was because the people agitated for those amendments. We now find ourselves at a point in history when the citizens no longer actively assert their rights. This has created an atmosphere in which the government is grabbing at our rights. At one time, even just the attempt would have been unthinkable.

Push-back does not have to be radical. It can consist of little moments such as the author describes. I am stunned so many people could fail to understand the need for citizens to retain their Constitutional rights and to exercise them. More negative feedback is directed at the author than I would have imagined. Never mind Boing Boing first gained popularity based on its coverage of issue related to personal liberty. There is much criticism of someone for reminding us that we are democracy, and that citizens in a democracy are able to exercise the rights without being persecuted or prosecuted for doing so. The author even has a subsequent post just to address all the comments.

Many (but not all) of the comments reflect a prevalent ignorance of the Constitution. The rights of the people are very clear and even clearer is the intention of the document. America is not about the government – it’s about We, The People, stupid! Citizens are guaranteed protection from the overreaching tentacles of a leviathan government. We are guaranteed assumption of our innocence, and the government is required to obtain a warrant to search our property. And if the government wants to charge us with a crime, there is due process that is guaranteed all citizens. The point of the Constitution is not to design a government as an end in itself, but to design a society that ensures its citizens’ rights are preserved, honored, and respected.

We’ve all watched episodes of COPS. The show is so engrained in the cultural consciousness that people now think standard operating procedure is to spill your beans to an officer on demand. Since 9/11the government has manipulated the popular media to create anxiety and fear in the general population to the point that everyone reneges on their supposedly natural rights any time an officer of the law barks at them. In still another post on the subject on Knife Tricks, the author links to this informative law school video about why you should never talk to the cops.

Americans have collectively forgotten that they don’t have to answer questions, especially when they’re not guilty of a crime. You are not required to explain your innocence to a law enforcement officer because you are innocent. Silence cannot be construed as admission of guilt to any and all crimes. It is the responsibility of the government to build a case against you, not to trick you into incriminating yourself. I think the intention of the Constitution is pretty clear – individual citizens cannot be bullied by the government. Again, it is about the people, not the government.

I’ve never refused to answer the questions of a CBP officer as the author describes, but I have experienced several incidents where CBP officers were nasty, belligerent, rude, disrespectful, and sometimes even accusatory, when I did nothing other than answer questions. Same thing with cops – bad attitude and disdain for the citizens they represent seem to be par for the course these days.

In addition to the government rolling back civil liberties more and more as the the citizenry continues to fail to resist each step of the way, you also have this behavior at the lowest level in those who implement government policy. As the author mentions, “cops really don’t like it when you don’t answer their questions.” (Emphasis is the author’s) This indicates a pervasive situation where CBP officers, cops, and others in law enforcement don’t actually understand the law – that it is every citizen’s right to not answer any of their questions. Further, they may take silence as admission of guilt to some unknown crime and become more interrogative and belligerent when faced with a citizen exercising a right asserted in our country as natural, inalienable rights.

Many mass-media pundits like to throw around the meme about terrorist victory – ‘if we do blah blah blah, then the 9/11 terrorists have won.’ Well, now we’re disregarding the Constitution, which is supposedly the supreme law of the land. Law enforcement officers engage in aggressive pursuit of innocent citizens under the guise of an unending, unspecified, ever-present terrorist threat against us, which requires us to roll back the Bill of Rights and the Constitution to protect The People from themselves. Whose victory does that outcome represent?

People assume the government won’t just keep going until we have no rights left, that there will be some point at which it is determined the terrorist threat is not so severe that we must be completely stripped of our liberties. Should we trust this will happen, or do we at least start to question the government? The author of this piece illustrates one simple, passive act to affirm the right of an individual to remain silent when faced with an arbitrary interrogation.

Many of the comments on the piece illustrate a large segment of the population with no concept of individual liberty, let alone that such liberty should be exercised like a muscle. There is a faint glimmer of hope in that there are some comments of support. But overall, I must unfortunately admit the future of personal liberty in the U.S. seems grim at this point.

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