"The Constitution is not an instrument for the government to restrain the people, it is an instrument for the people to restrain the government -- lest it come to dominate our lives and interests."
This quote by American Revolution-era orator Patrick Henry is instructive in the debate that is currently taking place around the nation, over police encounters with civilians in which individuals end up beaten, arrested and even killed.
A public discussion about the need to reach an adequate balance between law enforcement and the fundamental constitutional rights of individuals, is long overdue. Unless such balance is achieved, the lives and liberty of many, particularly people of color, will continue to be put at risk.
Anyone stopped by a law enforcement officer should be respectful and obey the instructions given to them by the officer. It protects the officer and themselves. Officers, in turn, should comport themselves in accordance with the law, civility and respect, when interacting with the public.
However, it has become a tenet of late, and generally accepted by the population, that if a person who has arguably committed no crime and broken no laws, is stopped by a police officer, that the only rational response by that individual is to submit without so much as a word of resistance or insistence on lawful treatment, regardless of how illegal the stop is, or how abusive, offensive or unlawful the officer's conduct might be.
Accepting a notion about the inevitability of poor police conduct as endemic to law enforcement, is inherently an unprincipled position that needs to be re-examined.
It is also arguably unconstitutional.
The U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and particularly the Fourth Amendment, were specifically enacted to rebuke and guard against the potential abuses of government in the performance of its duties.
And, yet we are repeatedly warned that the prudent conduct for any individual who is stopped by the police, regardless of the circumstances, is to submit to whatever is demanded of them by officers. It is suggested that if stopped, we must allow ourselves to be manhandled, verbally abused, bullied and even physically assaulted -- as a means of warding off what could be a worse scenario.
The presumption that any grievance could be redress afterwards in a court of law, has become the only recourse suggested and accepted by pundits and law enforcement experts, as the appropriate course of action for the beleaguered individual who has braved a police incident in which they have endured insult, abuse or violence.
It misguidedly presumes that once brought before a judge, an individual will have the means and resources secure the time, representation and bail, if necessary, to purse a complaint later. Even if an innocent person manages to have unjustified charges dismissed, seeking rectification will never undo the deprivation of fundamental constitutional rights, humiliation, and loss of freedom that comes from knowing that no one is free from unlawful and illegal search and seizure by government.
Beyond the constitutional infringements, there are other significant consequences of "submit now-and-sue later," including the unavoidable loss of law enforcement legitimacy, and the cost of settlements brought by victims, a price ultimately paid by taxpayers.
Because law enforcement officers are granted the powers to arrest, seize property, and even use deadly force on behalf of the state, the constitution charges them with greater responsibilities in executing their duties. They must be held to a higher standard of character and moral judgment, than a policy of "submit-and-sue" suggests.
We must demand that police officers treat every person that is stopped, without exception, with respect, the presumption that the person has committed no crime -- unless they have the probable cause to believe otherwise. It is crucial that law enforcement officers realize that the right to stop individuals is not only derived from their badge, but from the authority that flows directly from the Constitution they are sworn to uphold.
Until the mindset suggesting that free people should submit themselves to abuse by those hired to protect them is debunked, there must be an outcry by the legal community and those law enforcement officers who currently understand they do not have powers to abuse, mistreat or endanger civilians. There should be a clear-eyed examination on the broad impact of "submit-and-sue" as an appropriate response when confronted with police abuse.
The public should not accept that the only course of action for law-abiding individuals is to be at the mercy of those who have a Constitutional duty to protect them. Instead, let us be unyielding in the pursuit of a more just and ethical society, as constructed by all its members -- on both sides of the badge.