Residents of the U.S. have the right to freedom of association and to organize without government interference. But the FBI routinely stomps on the Constitution in its rush to intimidate and harass activists. Being prepared to assert your rights is half the battle when facing down agents of government repression. The other half is to gather community support for a loud, public fight to defend your — and others’ — rights.
• Exercise your right to remain silent. This is the most important thing to do. The Fifth Amendment protects you whether you are a citizen or not, no matter your age, and whether or not you have been arrested or are in jail. When approached by a law enforcement agent — at your door or over the phone — tell them, “I am not talking to you.” Refusing to answer is not a crime, but lying to a federal official is a federal offense. Anything you say can be used against you and others. Warning: In some states you can be detained for refusing to give your name to the police; know your state’s laws.
• Ask for a lawyer. This should stop questioning. It’s wise to get a lawyer: they can protect your rights, find out the nature of any investigation and advise you during questioning. Detained immigrants have a right to a lawyer. (To find one, contact the National Lawyers Guild, ACLU or your Bar Association.)
• Don’t give access to your house or office without a search warrant. Allowing an investigator past your door may be construed as consent to search. You may not be able to stop a warrantless search without risking violence, but you should state loudly so witnesses can hear, “I do not consent to a search.” A boss can consent to a search of your office; a parent or spouse to your private space; a roommate to a house’s common areas. Warning: If you allow an officer with an arrest warrant into your home, they can conduct a warrantless search; step outside to deal with them.
• Try to limit a search to the specifics of the warrant. If an officer says they have a warrant, demand to see it. It must specify the places to search and the people or things to sieze; it must have been signed by a judge recently. State that you do not consent to the search; watch everything they do, preferably with witnesses. Note: your trash can be searched once it is outside your house.
• Keep important documents out of your car. Law enforcement has broad power to conduct warrantless searches on vehicles. State that you do not consent to a search. Note: If stopped, a driver must show license, registration and proof of insurance.
• Be ultra cautious what you say in emails and on the phone, especially cell phones. Laws concerning bugs, wiretaps, access to emails and web searches are evolving. Suffice it to say that law enforcement can access much of your electronic communications — and does. Emails pose the greatest threat.
• If you are served with a subpoena, accept it. Take especially seriously a subpoena for a grand jury, a powerful tool used to conduct witch hunts against activists. If it’s a subpoena to turn over evidence or to testify in court, don’t let the server in, don’t answer questions and don’t consent to a search. Contact a lawyer to quash (dismiss) the subpoena.
Keep notes on all encounters, especially officers’ names, phone numbers and agency. In most instances it is wise to find a people’s lawyer to protect your constitutional rights. For more information see If An Agent Knocks (the booklet), available for download on the Center for Constitutional Rights website.
Related story: The war on dissent
Also see: Obama’s surge against civil liberties