Know Your Rights: A Primer on Citizen Responsibility

You’ve probably heard about Netflix’s new, and already most-viewed series, When They See Us, the story of the Central Park 5; five black teens who served multiple years in prison for a brutal rape before finally being exonerated by DNA evidence. The show is crushingly intense, brutal in its graphic attention to the experiences of the boys, who are interviewed by the police in some cases without parents or lawyers present, and who are eventually coached to share stories that implicate each other, even though they’ve never met before.

Which reminds us with blinding certainty: Law enforcement officers make mistakes. Just like all humans, police and prosecutors bring their biases, insecurities and traumas to their encounters. And like all professionals, law enforcement should be questioned and held accountable by their clients.

And I’m sure I don’t have to remind you that we, the people, are their clients. We, the people, who pay their salaries and depend on their services. We provide accountability to law enforcement, not just for ourselves but for others.

If I am seen by a medical provider who acts inappropriately, is unethical, or provides harmful medical advice, it’s my responsibility to the provider’s future patients to report that information. In the same way, knowing our citizen rights when we encounter law enforcement protects the most vulnerable of our population, including people of color, the homeless and the mentally ill.

I exercise my rights not because I have anything to hide but because doing so creates room and normalcy for others to exercise those same rights.

Important facts to know when encountering on-duty law enforcement:

  • You must always follow the commands of an on-duty police officer.
  • You should always sign a ticket or citation if given one and provide an ID for purposes of the citation when asked.
  • Police are legally allowed to lie to you and intimidate you to accomplish their purposes. Be aware.

Knowing the above facts, I exercise my rights in any encounter with the police. I do so by:

  • Asking if I am free to go if stopped and questioned. If the answer is yes, I simply leave. If the answer is no, I ask, “Why are you detaining me?” The police often rely on people’s natural inclination to answer the questions of a person in uniform. Their questions can be used to gain information that can lead to reasonable suspicion or probable cause to detain or arrest you. While you may not personally fear an arrest, your behavior helps set a standard for more vulnerable populations.
  • Giving my name and nothing more if detained, even temporarily. I state “I’ll remain silent” and then wait to speak with the police until my lawyer is present. Remember, anything you say can be used against you. Again, even if you have nothing to hide, practice safe encounters with law enforcement. Staying silent is wisdom, not an indication of guilt.
  • I remind the police that I do not consent to a search of myself or my property. If they ask to search my vehicle I tell them no. The police know that they must meet certain requirements to search your person and vehicle unless granted permission by YOU. Again, they rely on most people viewing their questions as commands due to the presence of their uniform, badge and weapon.

We’ve given law enforcement truly significant power, including the power to give commands based on assumptions and beliefs, as well as the power to shoot first and ask questions later. Because we’ve given them this power, we don’t get to argue, debate or question their commands in the moment. But don’t forget to eventually ask those questions! Law enforcement officers do not expect citizens to exercise their rights to sue the police after they are detained or arrested without cause. After all, who has the time or money to pursue such a case? But I encourage you to push for justice, not only for yourself, but for vulnerable populations. This is good citizenship. The Department of Justice may even be interested in information you have to share.

Perhaps most importantly for those of us who are rarely stopped by law enforcement ourselves: film the police. The Redding Police Department does not use body cameras for a variety of reasons, including cost and storage space needed for the footage. Remember your power as a citizen to film encounters with the police when you see an interaction that begins to concern you, particularly encounters involving vulnerable populations. Video recordings of on-duty police officers are legal in California as long as you do not disrupt their work while filming.

Do you remember when you were small and never thought to question your parents? One day you got old enough to realize, “hey, they don’t get to be the boss of me all the time!” Perhaps this is your moment to realize the same thing with law enforcement. Respect the police AND establish safe and healthy boundaries with them. Know your rights. Practice good citizenship. Provide accountability.

I was recently stopped at a small internal border patrol checkpoint located some 60 miles from the California/Mexico border. I waited in line, watching as the cars in front of me pulled up to the border patrol officer, immediately pulling their IDs from their wallets and handing them over. When I pulled up I asked, simply, “Am I required to show you ID?” The officer appeared flustered and stated emphatically, “No! But you ARE required to state your citizenship!” (A statement I later discovered was untrue.) I stated my citizenship and moved forward, but the effort it had taken not to comply with the immediate unspoken expectations of law enforcement to produce my ID had startled me. And the importance of doing so, for the sake of others, remains with me still.

If there is ever a show-down between police power and constitutional rights, it is the rights of the people that should always win. This is the real rule of law.

The U.S. Constitution is the nation’s most fundamental law. It codifies the core values of the people. Rule of law is a principle under which all persons, institutions, and entities are accountable to laws that are: publicly promulgated, equally enforced, independently adjudicated, and consistent with international human rights principles. – US

Annelise Pierce
Annelise Pierce is fascinated by the intersection of people and policy. She has a special interest in criminal justice, poverty, mental health and education. Her long and storied writing career began at age 11 when she won the Louisa May Alcott Foundation's Gothic Romance short story competition. (Spoiler alert - both hero and heroine die.) Annelise welcomes your (civil) interactions at
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24 Responses

  1. Avatar Bruce Vojtecky says:

    As Phoenix hits the national news again with a bad police/colored encounter of which the police chief(a black woman) and the mayor, a white woman) have already apologized for the issues are front and center. A black family was accused of shoplifting, videos show the four year old carrying a doll out of a Family Dollar and supposedly underwear items were taken by the adults, no clear proof of that. The driver, later found to have a suspended license, refused orders to stop. Phoenix police finally stopped the family at their apartment complex and then the filming began and those videos not only show excess brutality by police but also pointed guns at the mother and small children in the car. For shoplifting? There is a gap, pointed out by news, between when the family left Family Dollar and entered their complex, a time that they have been accused, but not proven, of throwing shoplifted items out of the car window while driving.
    Anyone who has seen the videos knows excess force was used in the arrest. One consideration is that a half a dozen police officers in Phoenix have been killed while on duty recently. The police have had a bulls eye put on their back by anti-police groups and this is the result.
    As far as having meetings with police and community, which is needed, those meetings usually end up like the one Mayor and Presidential candidate, Pete Buttigieg, just had in South Bend over a police shooting, total chaos as protesters on both sides shouted and yelled.

  2. Avatar Chris Soul says:

    And the tiny hamlet of Red Bluff CAN afford body cameras, go figure…

  3. Adrienne Jacoby Adrienne Jacoby says:

    Most of we citizens who have never been stopped by the police, outside the ‘normal’ traffic stop, never even stop to think about those things. As children we are taught to respect and obey those in authority and acting otherwise never even occurrs to us.
    You gave all good information. I’ll read this more than once to be sure I understand and have internalized your points.

    • Annelise Pierce Annelise Pierce says:

      This is my experience too, Adrienne. The key is to respect the police AND hold them accountable. Respect of course is still important. Thank you for reading.

  4. Avatar Randy says:

    Thanks for the very informative article and solid advice Annelise. I had never considered it my civic duty to respectfully hold LE to the rules for the specific purpose to protect the rights of our entire citizenry but I will not forget that duty from now on.

    • Annelise Pierce Annelise Pierce says:

      I’m so glad. You’ve summarized it perfectly: it’s our civic duty to respectfully hold LE accountable for the purpose of protecting other citizens. Thank you!

  5. Avatar Patricia Barrett says:

    Way back in 2014 the City of Redding allotted a half-million dollars for the purchase of body cams and the storage of film. Over time then-Police Chief Rob Paoletti came up with one excuse after another to avoid implementing this program (although quite a few other cities have managed to overcome the objections he cited). As I recall, at one point he even offered guidelines for the prospective camera’s use that relieved officers of the responsibility of using cameras in almost every situation except the interrogation of suspects already in police custody. This issue needs to go back on the front burner stat.

    • Avatar Patricia Barrett says:

      Correction: That should read “a quarter-million dollars”. At the time $250,000.00 was more than adequate to purchase body cams and implement this program.

  6. Avatar Linda Cooper says:

    Thank you for a “news we can use” article. Meanwhile, police can get jumpy when approaching a vehicle. I keep my hands on the steering wheel in plain sight. When asked to see my driver’s license, I slowly retrieve it and only roll the window down enough to pass it through. Well, that’s what mom taught me. It’s worked for me so far, but then I’m white.

  7. Avatar Richard Christoph says:

    As an individual who was once held at gunpoint with hands in the air on my own property by an RPD officer, this article certainly brought back memories. Turns out it was a case of matching the description of an armed perpetrator who was apprehended a few blocks away. The officer sped away with no further explanation or apology, and I was irate at having been “mistreated” and wrote a blistering letter to the Police Chief—not fully realizing until years later the constant stress and potential life-threatening danger that police officers face on a daily basis.

    I view The Blue very differently now and am aware that although there are indeed some rogue cops in this country, the vast majority just want to protect their community, return home safely to their wives/husbands and families, and dread having to fire their service weapon.

  8. Avatar Dan Mabry says:

    Annelise, this isn’t NYC or Oakland. Why don’t you go on a ride along and interview the Chief or Sheriff, or attend one of the frequent PR meetings? Since there are so few officers patrolling in the areas and hours you and your readers probably travel, the odds of not personally knowing the officers stopping you could become slim. Then the conversation could be “hey (Bob) what’s up?” ” Well Annelise, why the big hurry..slow it down..OK?” “Sorry (Bob), you and the kids going to (xyz) fundraiser later? “ a to go”. Everyone is don’t have a ticket and you didn’t give officer (Bob) grief..because an hour earlier he had a call with an abused or dead kid..that just ruined his day……

    • Avatar Candace C says:

      Dan, in Redding perhaps both things can be true – know your officers, know your rights. I see no negativity in doing one or both.

    • Hal Johnson Hal Johnson says:

      Dan, I might be reading too much into your comment, but your attitude seems to illustrate why I won’t belong to either major political party–the Republican and Democratic faithful tend to cherry pick when it comes to the Bill of Rights.

      I suspect you and I are pretty close to in lockstep when it comes to the Second Amendment, but I’m led to infer by your comment that you might take a dimmer view of the Fourth Amendment because, by gosh, it can make it more difficult for law enforcement to arrest people.

      I believe that we need to support–not just respect, but *support*–our law enforcement officers, but that we also need to remind them that they are sworn to protect and defend the Constitution. The notion that many people consider those two stances to be mutually exclusive is pretty freakin’ scary.

      • Avatar Dan says:

        Well, Hal, like you I don’t belong to either party, and I think the libertarians have some valid points. I am a strong believer in the 4th amendment, however,… I have no problem with the officer who patrols my neighborhood at 4 am(while I am sawing logs) asking a couple of guys driving slow around my neighborhood looking at homes, cars, or acting furtive, “what’s up”, “do you have any ID? or “who is your P.O.?”. All perfectly legal questions, that based on the answers will tell the officer a lot.

        Acting cranky, hostile, or quoting the constitution during a simple traffic stop(like some local groups ie, “Christian Identity” “Constitutionalists) VS a smile and small talk is not the best way to make friends..or avoid a ticket. 🙂 People are people. My 2 cents.

    • Annelise Pierce Annelise Pierce says:

      Hi Dan. I think what you’re saying is that I should use my access (privilege) to further secure my comfort around law enforcement. Which is kind of the opposite of what I was advocating for. I’m already an educated and confident white person who is comfortable interacting with the police; I exercise my rights to protect others. Like my black friend who’s been issued tickets for walking, biking and swimming in Shasta County (he doesn’t even own a car.) And my neighbor’s visiting Asian friend who was taking a walk around our neighborhood when someone called the police due to his “suspicious activity.” If exercising my rights is considered “giving an officer grief” something’s wrong with how we relate to LE.

      • Avatar Candace C says:

        Annalise, what are the tickets for? Literally. I’m seriously asking because my daughter’s boyfriend (Pakistani) and my niece’s boyfriend (black) are afraid to come here because of what they read about Shasta County’s political and social landscape. Breaks my heart. Seeing how things seem to escalate quickly on the face of it what you’re saying about your friends’ tickets and reported “suspicious” behavior is terrifying to me and I’m white.

  9. Avatar jeff says:

    Well Dan, you sure put that issue to bed.

    By the way, how do you know if Annalise has or has not done the ride alongs and interviews you suggested.

  10. Avatar chris soul says:

    There should be NO NEW TAXES until Redding police are held accountable with new body cameras.

    Remember this Redding Police horror story ….? ” Pregnant Chihuahua & Puppy Boxer Gunned Down During Suspect Search”

  11. Avatar Candace C says:

    Annalise, sorry about the last long, run on sentence. I accidentally posted my comment before I’d finished. Hopefully it makes sense.

  12. Avatar Candace C says:

    *Annelise. SORRY!

  13. Avatar Chris Soul says:

    There is hope in todays news…. Redding Police MUST be held accountable…

    “In Rare Move, Cop Charged After Video Showed Him Shoot a Tiny Chihuahua”

  14. R.V. Scheide R.V. Scheide says:

    It’s best not to play games with the police, particularly if you’ve been drinking. The louder you assert your rights, the harder the beating.

  15. Hal Johnson Hal Johnson says:

    I think a lot of us are torn between a desire to protect our rights and the knowledge that law enforcement officers have a tough and often thankless job.

    Sometimes it’s a judgment call. If I knew that a homicide suspect who looks kind of like me is at large, I would probably offer up my I.D. in the spirit of helpfulness. But, if I’m walking in downtown Redding at night and I’m asked to show my I.D. simply because I’m walking in downtown Redding at night, I’m going to remind the LEO that I’m not required to provide an I.D. simply because I’m walking around downtown Redding at night. Politely.