Are you male? The odds say you’ll be arrested by the police at least once.
What happens to Americans after the cops slap on the cuffs, therefore, is not an intellectual exercise, or a matter of liberal guilt. It doesn’t just happen to other people.
You. It could happen to you.
It’s happened to me twice in the United States, and more times than I can count in foreign dictatorships. (In Third World countries, it’s usually corrupt cops shaking you down for a bribe.) On each occasion, I was thunderstruck by an overwhelming sense of helplessness.
No one knew where I was.
I was trapped. Think this is a democracy? Think again. Whether you’re in Turkmenistan or the United States, victims of arrest are every bit as “disappeared” as if they were living under Orwell’s dystopian Big Brother.
Your family doesn’t know where you are.
You don’t show up to work — so you might lose your job.
If you need medication to live, you may die because the cops won’t give it to you.
When I was arrested, the policemen could have done anything they wanted to me — beat me up, rape me, even murder me — and get away with it. They didn’t. But they could.
That’s not a good feeling.
It’s certainly not a feeling you should have to experience for trivial offenses. (My case #1: arrested for possession of marijuana. Not mine. My friend’s. Because he was in the same car as me when I got pulled over for forgetting to turn on my headlights at night. My case #2: pulled over for speeding. Arrested for a suspended license. Which had been suspended in error.)
This kind of thing should not be a death sentence. A Justice Department study found that more than 2,000 criminal suspects died in police custody over a three-year period. Fifty-five percent were ruled as homicides by police officers.
Christopher J. Mumola, who authored the study, notes that most people make it out physically unharmed. “Keep in mind we have 2,000 deaths out of almost 40 million arrests over three years, so that tells you by their nature they are very unusual cases,” said Mumola.
But that’s still too many. And jail is still a gratuitously terrible experience. Guaranteed constitutional rights — to legal representation, a speedy trial and to communicate with the outside world –are routinely denied. Detectives bully and harangue suspects past the limit of human endurance, frequently extracting false confessions from innocent men and women. Basic needs, including access to medication, are often ignored.
Some conservatives will counter that the police shouldn’t coddle suspects. That if you do the crime, be prepared to do the time. But that’s precisely the point: under U.S. law, suspects haven’t done any crime. Until a judge or jury delivers a guilty verdict, arrestees are innocent under the law.
The Miranda decision — the last major reform that improved life for those who get arrested — is a half-century old. It’s time to update the rules to bring the experience of getting arrested in line with the high-flying rhetoric of human rights enshrined under U.S. law and with common decency.
You have the right to communicate.
Or you should. In New York City, for example, suspects being processed through Central Booking are supposed to be allowed to place three local phone calls for free. In New York and most other municipalities, this right is routinely delayed.
“Disappearing” people is unworthy of a modern nation-state. It’s also dangerous. What happens to children waiting for their parents to pick them up after school when they don’t show up?
“Prepare yourself and your family in case you are arrested. Memorize the phone numbers of your family and your lawyer,” advises the ACLU. But in the age of the cellphone, many people don’t know important phone numbers by heart.
Suspects should be permitted to keep their cellphones, and use them as much as they want, while waiting to be indicted or released.
You have the right to your meds.
Cops are extraordinarily cavalier about the health of the people they arrest. Members of Occupy Wall Street arrested in 2011 reported that jail guards in Manhattan routinely jeopardized their health. “At one point,” wrote Dave Korn, “the cops wheeled out a stretcher holding one of our girls; she was lying motionless, oxygen tubes connected to her face. She had been denied her medication and was now unconscious. The stretcher was left in the hallways, and cops were either walking past or photographing her.” A 22-year-old Washington state man was arrested for misdemeanor marijuana possession and sent to jail. He told the authorities that he had an extreme food allergy. Cops fed him oatmeal anyway, and told him it was safe. “Over the next half hour, the video shows other inmates looking in Saffioti’s cell as he jumped up and down. The legal claim says he pressed his call button and was ignored,” reported local TV. He died.
Congress should pass a federal law guaranteeing Americans’ right to keep their medications with them if they’re arrested, as well as access to food conforming to their medical, dietary and religious needs.
You have the right to be speedily processed.
Anyone arrested in the U.S. is entitled to respect. Which includes the right to be charged or released quickly. In many jurisdictions, the 24-hour rule before seeing a judge is ignored — especially if you’re nabbed on a Friday night. Then it goes to 72 hours. Which is stupid. Jails don’t suspend business over weekends. Neither should the courts.
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