Opinion - Know your rights until the police do

In the process of serving and protecting, the police have to respect citizens' constitutional rights. Whether in error or willful disregard of the law, the Atlanta Police Department has proven several times lately that its officers aren't exactly authorities on the Constitution — and the city has ended up paying for it.

Just last week, the city agreed to fork over a $40,000 settlement to Marlon Kautz of Copwatch of East Atlanta, who had his video camera illegally snatched by police officers for taping them while they made an arrest. Besides the cash payout, the settlement requires that the APD change and clarify its standard operating procedures to reflect officers' constitutional capabilities. The changes are similar to those the department had already been required to make as part of the settlement of the now-infamous 2009 Eagle raid, in which 60-odd patrons of the Midtown gay bar were detained during a warrantless search.

Here are some lessons the average citizen can glean from the department's recent transgressions:

You can photograph and videotape the police.

As long as it doesn't "physically interfere" with an officer's duty, you have the right to photograph or videotape an officer in action.

The cops can't stop you just because they think you might be up to no good.

After finding widespread constitutional violations in the APD's execution of the Eagle raid, a federal judge mandated that many of the department's controversial policies be revoked or amended. Among the policies clarified is a practice known as "Terry stops," a brief, investigatory stop based on "reasonable suspicion." While Terry stops don't require probable cause — reasonable suspicion is less demanding — the police can't stop you if they just have a hunch you're doing something illegal. Basically, an officer has to be able to name a specific, identifiable crime he suspects a person of in order to detain him or her.

Cops can't ask for ID unless they think you're doing something criminal.

During the Eagle raid, officers demanded IDs from all of the bar's patrons, which they proceeded to use to check for outstanding warrants. Not allowed. A cop cannot require identification from a citizen unless he has reasonable suspicion the person is doing something illegal.

Knowing your rights might still not prevent you from being arrested for disorderly conduct.

Unless you are physically harming another person, acting in a threatening manner, obstructing traffic, inciting a riot or generally creating a public disturbance, your conduct is likely perfectly orderly. This is an oversimplification, of course. Give the ordinance (Sec. 106-81) a read on the city's website so you can recite it in the comfort of your holding cell.

Now, don't get us wrong. This isn't a call to civil disobedience, nor are we saying that following these rules will make you arrest-proof. But until the APD is more familiar with our civil rights, it's probably best to know them for yourself.

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