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Bar Association hosts free event to inform Brooklynites of their rights in police encounters

April 30, 2019 Rob Abruzzese
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Knowing what to do and what your rights are can have a big impact on the outcome of any police encounter. Saying or doing the wrong thing could mean the difference between spending the night at Rikers Island or at home.

Attorneys with the Brooklyn Bar Association know this which is why the BBA Foundation Law Committee hosted a “Know Your Rights” event in Brooklyn Heights on Monday at which they provided free information on what Brooklynites should do during police encounters.

“The Foundation Law Committee puts on several programs for the public throughout the year,” said Fern Finkel, the chair of the Foundation Law Committee. “We’ve done this one before and it has been very popular.”

The program featured a pair of attorneys, Catherine Gonzalez and Matthew Robison, and a social worker, Hyisheem Calier, from Brooklyn Defender Services. The trio discussed the rights that people have when dealing with police officers and presented some scenarios to explain how best to exercise these rights.

“The first magic phrase is, ‘Am I being detained?’ and also remember, ‘Am I free to go?’” said Gonzalez. “If you are talking with a police officer and you are not sure if you have to continue the conversation, you can interrupt and politely ask, ‘Officer, am I being detained?’ or ‘Am I free to go?’”

The hour-and-a-half-long presentation started with an icebreaker that asked some questions of the audience. Then, the three BDS employees performed some skits and discussed what they each did wrong and right.

“I have an aunt that always says, ‘if you have done nothing wrong, you should allow the police to do whatever it is they want to do,’” Gonzalez said. “It doesn’t matter what you are doing, you have rights, and everyone should know them and exercise them.

“You may think that just going along will end the situation faster, but let’s just say you work at Trader Joe’s and you have a box cutter in your bag,” Gonzalez continued. “An officer who stops you might want to look through your bag for something else, but if he finds that, you could end up in jail if you just hand your bag over to him without thinking about it.”

The BBA Foundation hosts similar “Know Your Rights” programs throughout the year covering topics such as landlord-tenant actions, coop and condo rights, elder law programs and consumer debt and bankruptcy. Finkel explained that the police encounters program is the most popular and they have been discussing doing it twice a year.

The programs are free to the public and designed to help Brooklynites avoid common legal issues, as well as helping them avoid hiring an attorney for minor questions.

“Knowing your rights in advance can often help you avoid problems in the first place,” Finkel said. “Thanks so much to our presenters, Brooklyn Defender Services, and its executive director Lisa Schreibersdorf.”

Fern Finkel, chair of the BBA Foundation Law Committee, which hosts regular and free “Know Your Rights” programs for the public.

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