Film Tells How to Stay Out of Jail

Posted April 2, 2010 at 1:59pm

The scene is a familiar one. A young African-American man is pulled over and, after he responds derisively to the officer’s requests, finds himself in handcuffs.

This is not an episode of “Cops,” though. It’s a scene from the new film “10 Rules for Dealing with the Police,” a project of the nonprofit group Flex Your Rights that seeks to educate both the public and police officers about how to avoid disproportionate reactions in what should be routine encounters.

After the disastrous opening scene, the film pulls back to a courtroom in which Baltimore trial lawyer William “Billy” Murphy lays out some basic pointers before a rapt audience. “I know how the law works, and I know that for many people the law sometimes doesn’t work,” he says.

Scott Morgan, the film’s co-creator and the associate director of Flex Your Rights, said the project grew out of a 2004 video called “Busted: the Citizen Guide to Surviving Police Encounters,” whose success was bolstered by clips of the video going viral on the Web. “10 Rules,” the result of a two-year effort that included extensive fundraising and the recruitment of Murphy and retired police detective Neill Franklin, expands on “Busted.”

Morgan said the shortcomings that the film seeks to address cut both ways — while some police act outside the sphere of their legal authority, many citizens are ignorant of how to deal with such overreaches. In the heightened emotional context of dealing with the police, there is ample room for error.

“We do have a big problem with police misconduct in this country and routine abuses of power ranging from minor to severe, but the point I would really want to emphasize is that that problem has emerged in the context of a citizenry that is not knowledgeable about basic constitutional rights,” Morgan said. “Our belief is that many of the problems in the criminal justice system begin with the fact that citizens don’t understand basic civil rights.”

For example, a woman in the film does not put up any resistance when two police officers arrive on her doorstep without a warrant and ask whether they may search the house. When the officers find a bag of marijuana lodged in the couch — marijuana that the woman didn’t know about — they arrest her — an outcome that could have been avoided had she simply refused them entry. In an instance of profiling, a Latino man in a jersey and baggy jeans is thrown up against a car and searched by an officer who demands, “Where’s the dope? Come on, give it up.”

Morgan said that the response to the film has so far been “incredibly positive” and that he has seen demand for copies of the film from educators, activists and police who believe it can be a good teaching tool. Franklin was formerly the commander of the Maryland State Police Academy, and he said that if he could, he would make viewing the film mandatory.

“Police need to concentrate more not just in their training programs for new officers but in their in-service programs that they conduct every year, they need to focus on constitutional rights,” he said. “Supervisors need to reiterate that every time they’re out in the street supervising people. We can do our jobs quite effectively and respect constitutional rights.”

Franklin helped to oversee the technical aspects of the film so that the encounter portrayed was as realistic as possible. Franklin, who served for 33 years, said that the majority of police officers stay within the boundaries of the law, but that the film focuses on officers who are “getting it wrong” by violating basic freedoms such as the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition of unreasonable search and seizure. He described a degradation of just enforcement in lower-income communities, such as those he patrolled in Baltimore, which he said were often drug-related arrests.

The solution, Franklin said, is to ensure that people are aware of their rights and exercise them properly, which he sees as a safeguard against police abuse. He also noted that continually educating officers on not exceeding the limits of their powers is essential.

“We have this breakdown between police and our neighborhoods,” he said. “If people in the neighborhoods begin to hold police more accountable then there would be a change, but in many neighborhoods it’s become so habitual that it’s what people come to expect.”

The intersection of laws relating to drug possession and arrests helped to spur the film’s creation. Franklin is a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, which advocates legalizing and regulating drugs. Franklin was giving a LEAP presentation at the University of Maryland when he first met the creators of “10 Rules,” and he said “profiling born out of the war on drugs” was the central reason that many officers violate the Fourth Amendment.

“The law enforcement officers of LEAP have seen the failure of the war on drugs with respect to all drugs, so they support legalizing and regulating them,” LEAP Media Relations Director Tom Angell said.

The Marijuana Policy Project, which also supports the legalization of marijuana, helped to fund “Busted” and “10 Rules,” although Morgan noted that the film’s funding flowed from other sources as well, including private philanthropists and the Public Welfare Foundation.