Many are familiar with the "bust cards" issued by groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. The wallet-sized cards succinctly inform readers of their constitutional rights in the event of an encounter with police. "You do not have to talk to the police without a lawyer present," the cards say, "Do not consent to any searches." In a nation that saw nearly 700,000 people arrested on marijuana charges alone last year -- the vast majority of them for simple possession -- providing such information is a valuable and necessary public service.
But glancing at a bust card and carrying it around in one's wallet doesn't simulate the high-stakes, adrenaline-charged atmosphere of a real-life encounter with the police. As any criminal defense lawyer will tell you, most people are not aware of their rights, but even those who are typically fail to exercise them in the face of aggressive, demanding police officers unready to accept anything except absolute compliance with their commands. Now, thanks to the Flex Your Rights Foundation (http://www.flexyourrights.org), a Washington, DC-based organization whose raison d'etre is teaching citizens to assert and protect their rights during police encounters, everybody has the opportunity to learn their constitutional rights and to see how to apply them in real-life situations.
Flex Your Rights has just released its instructional video, "BUSTED: The Citizens' Guide to Surviving Police Encounters," and it should be a blockbuster. A combination of civics lesson and COPS, "BUSTED" boasts the forthright narration of one of the nation's leading civil libertarians, recently retired long-time head of the ACLU, Ira Glasser. Glasser's combination of gravitas and grandfatherly mien lend his narration a credibility few could match, and his exposition of what the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendments mean to people's ability to defend themselves from unwarranted police intrusions is straightforward enough that even the kid who missed civics class will be able to grasp his meaning.
But while Glasser provides the law lessons and narrative structure, the video's real grabber is the scenes where all-too-common simple encounters with police spin out of control into arrest and a slamming jail cell door. The video opens with three red-eyed, munchie-eating students driving on their way to a concert. Suddenly, the red lights come on behind. (Kudos due here to rising starlet Carolyn Lunman, the young woman in the front seat, who, according to inside sources, upon turning and seeing the police car behind them, improvised the timeless line, "Oh, crap.") From then on, it's all downhill, as the hapless trio repeatedly (and unknowingly) waive their rights until they end up in handcuffs and jail cells.
And here's where Glasser comes in. He revisits the encounter, going over every aspect of the interaction between students and the policeman and showing exactly when and how they managed to turn a simple speeding ticket into a three-person marijuana bust. The driver, Darrell, leaves his car door invitingly wide-open when he exits the car at the cop's command, allowing the officer to stick his head in, sniff, and note that "it smells like Bob Marley's ass in here." Then the officer, in typical fashion, misleads and intimidates the trio into consenting to a search of their car. "You don't have any dope in here and you don't mind if I take a look around, do you?" he asks. "No," says the unprepared driver. But has he denied having any contraband or has he consented to a search? The officer's compound question was a deliberate construction designed to confuse and trick his prey, and it worked. Then yet again, as the officer holds up a backpack and asks to look inside, he alternately cajoles and threatens until the driver yields -- despite being fully aware that he's carrying a baggie of weed -- and seals his own arrest. The young woman, too, admits to owning the pipe accompanying the baggie, thus sealing her arrest. The third young man, the most scared and stoned-seeming ("Let him look in the bag, Darrell," Troy shouts out in a panic after the cop describes how luscious the two students would look to their cellmates), ends up in cuffs, too, after admitting to having smoked pot earlier. "Thanks for being honest with me," the cop says.
The scenario is all too familiar. It has happened to us, or to our friends or relatives or classmates. And it has lead to all sorts of dire consequences: criminal records, lost jobs, embarrassment, fines, lost student loans, and on and on and on. But now, Glasser and Flex Your Rights come to the rescue. The next scene in "BUSTED" is an alternate take, with the driver fully aware of and exercising his rights. When the red lights start flashing, Darrell instructs his passengers to stay silent, then takes command of the situation. "Why did you stop us, officer?" he begins, immediately throwing off the inquisitional dynamic favored by police officers. He lowers his window only enough to converse with the officer -- not enough for him to stick his head in and sniff around. He doesn't tell the officer whether they are carrying any contraband. And he calmly and politely refuses to consent to a search of his vehicle. When the officer begins the cajoling and the threats, Darrell simply responds with "Are we free to go?" The visibly angered cop threatens to call in the drug dogs, goes to his car, returns a few minutes later, gives Darrell a speeding ticket, and leaves. "What just happened?" exults Carolyn. "Dude, you the man!" shouts Troy.
Yeah, Darrell was the man that time. By effectively exercising his rights, he saved himself and his friends from a very ugly experience. "BUSTED" does the same thing with two other common scenarios -- the street stop and the loud party -- first showing the typical, uneducated and unpracticed responses leading to arrest and jail, and then contrasting them with educated, assertive (yet non-confrontational) responses of people prepared to exercise their rights.
The acting (a mix of professionals and drug policy wonk amateurs) is good, as are the editing and production values of director Roger Sorkin, but even if it were B-movie quality hackwork, "BUSTED" would still be a critically important self-defense tool, not only for the millions of Americans who violate the drug laws on a daily basis, but for everyone in the country. After all, as Flex Your Rights executive director Steve Silverman will quickly point out, constitutional rights designed to protect us and our privacy from government intrusion belong to all of us. It's up to us to know and exercise them, and "BUSTED" does a great job helping to show us how.
"BUSTED" deserves to be -- needs to be -- seen on every campus and in every high school across the land. (After all, what is more of a civics lesson than learning how to exercise your rights?) It needs to be seen in the communities most at risk as well: the inner cities and barrios of the country.
BUSTED got rave reviews (no pun intended) at its college premier in Bozeman, Montana, last month, where 300 students skipped part of the World Series to check it out, the vast majority of them sticking out not only the 45-minute video but the question and discussion session that followed. I personally showed an informal advance screening of "BUSTED" at an apartment full of young people in Austin, Texas, last week. They grumbled at first when I turned off BET, but the complaints rapidly ceased as these kids were first enthralled by the COPS-style encounter and then entranced by the idea that they could protect themselves. One young man who had been arrested after a traffic stop just days earlier gave perhaps the most impressive and heart-felt testimonial: "Dude, I wish I'd seen this last week!"
Don't be like that kid. Get a copy of "BUSTED" now (http://stopthedrugwar.org/donate/ is one good way), and watch it repeatedly. Then show it to anyone you can get to watch. This is important.