Knowing your rights as a student and citizen

The U.S. Bill of Rights outlines a list of basic rights that all citizens have. Here are the most basic of American rights, such as the right to free speech, the right to bear arms and the protection against unwarranted search, among others. The founding fathers penned these rights, but to this day their interpretations are ever-changing with new court rulings, making their actual meanings in our everyday life unclear. While circumstances play a role in any legal situation, knowledge of one’s rights and how they apply not only in a court of law but also at the university conduct level is vital for students who might find themselves dealing with the law.

Jurisdictional Differences

As with laws, specific rights may vary from state to state. For instance, a judge in Montana might deem a search by police lawful while a judge in California, where statutes differ from those here, might rule the same search unlawful. Despite these differences, the laws of both states must still comply with the Constitution, and federal courts can make rulings that override decisions by lesser powers. In theory this ensures that no states can pass a law that violates its citizens’ Constitutional rights.

In Montana, the state has passed similar legislation to protect  students from rights violations by universities. Enacted in 1947, Montana Code states that “Intrusions by peace officers and other officials exercising responsibility for law enforcement must be governed by standards and procedures no less stringent than those applicable to intrusions on private quarters outside institutions.” Attorney Audrey Cromwell of Cromwell Law Firm — the firm contracted by ASMSU to represent students — interpreted this statute as one which “stops students from relinquishing their rights at a university.” Cromwell added that, “Montanans place a very high value on privacy.”

Another example of laws with variations from state to state are “stop and frisk” laws. These statutes outline the abilities of police to stop and identify individuals and only exist in some states. Montana statute 46-5-401 gives police the ability to conduct an “investigative stop and frisk,” in which they may request identification. Chief of Police Robert Putzke explained this as the ability of the police to ask for your name: “If they need to identify you they have the right to do so,” Putzke said. “The police have the ability to identify you if you’re suspected of committing a crime.”

Cromwell confirmed Putzke’s statement, saying that failure to cooperate in a stop and identify situation with the police could lead to criminal charges. She said, “Police can ask you for your name and date of birth and you have to give them that information.” Cromwell continued, “You can be charged with obstruction of justice for hindering an investigation.”

Speaking to the Police:

While identifying oneself is necessary to avoid legal trouble, Cromwell said citizens have little obligation to communicate with the police past this juncture. “You don’t have to answer questions if you don’t want to,” she said. Cromwell voiced the importance of being polite and respectful when dealing with officers: “You can say you want to speak to an attorney, but you can say it in a way that isn’t disrespectful or would further escalate any conflict.

Practicing your rights can be in your best interest in some cases. Cromwell pointed out, “Anything you tell [the police] can be incriminating and can be used against you,” particularly pointing to instances where police ask, “Do you know why I stopped you?” She also said that this applies in serious cases, “especially if it’s drugs or something a student might think is more than a misdemeanor.” Cromwell still urged students to take the high road when talking to police, citing a trait common to most people: “Police officers react better to you if you are nice to them and act civil.”

Burdens of Proof

One of the more complex concepts in law is different burdens of proof. For different scenarios where the state’s authority is enacted over an individual, the state must have a certain level of proof that their actions are justified. For instance, a peace officer can conduct a stop and frisk with the lowest level of justification, called reasonable suspicion. If the officer finds further evidence, an arrest may be made after probable cause has been established that a crime was committed. In a criminal court, the judge or jury must have evidence beyond a reasonable doubt of the suspect’s guilt. This differs from the burden of proof standard used in a civil court, which is called a preponderance of evidence.

Dean of Students Matt Caires spoke on the significance of these levels of proof in a university setting: “In a criminal court, the burden of proof is ‘beyond a reasonable doubt.’ With conduct code violations we use a preponderance of evidence as our burden of proof.” Putzke pointed out that the level of certainty for action in a court of law is far higher than that in the dean of students office. “To prove beyond a reasonable doubt, we have to be 90 percent certain we are correct. Preponderance of evidence is closer to around 50 percent.”
Cromwell and Putzke both used the example of O.J. Simpson’s murder trial to show the differences in levels of burdens of proof. O.J. Simpson was found not guilty of his wife’s murder in a criminal court due to lack of evidence, but the wrongful death suit filed by his deceased wife’s family was ruled in favor of the family when tried in civil court. While there was not sufficient evidence to put the defamed football star behind bars, the evidence provided was enough to convince a civil jury that he should be held responsible for his wife’s death. Putzke said this discrepancy is due to the severity of a possible conviction or decision. In a criminal case, the defendant’s freedom is at stake, while conduct hearings at a university or a civil lawsuit could only result in financial loss or expulsion from school.