Georgia Civil Rights Attorney: What to say if you get pulled over.

At our first public meeting of 2022, Peachtree NORML brought you the voice and insights of J. “Alex” Johnson, an experienced attorney who fights for civil rights in Georgia. Find the video of that meeting below.

By sharing police dashcam video and court documents, Johnson clearly illustrates the damage cannabis prohibition does to Georgians’ lives. The police tactics used in the name of cannabis are synonymous with its continued prohibition. Georgians reject both.

We recommend you listen to the case stories and all the great advice in this month’s meeting video.

But we don’t believe in clickbait. 

Here’s what you should say – AND NOT SAY – if you’re pulled over (whether you have broken the law or not).

1. Keep your hands visible and make no sudden movements. Just because an officer shouldn’t overreact doesn’t mean they won’t.
2. Give them your license, registration, and proof of insurance. You have to provide these. If one is out of date or the address is wrong, DO NOT volunteer that information.
3. DO NOT engage in conversation. If asked where you’re coming from, where you’re going, what’s in the car, you say:

“My good friend is a lawyer, and he made me promise to always invoke my 5th amendment rights.  I do not consent to searches and I decline to answer questions. Really, he’ll never forgive me if I don’t.”

Don’t consent to searches or answer questions. Even if a traffic stop goes badly and you are arrested, your lawyer can do more to help you if you didn’t waive your rights voluntarily. You can challenge probable cause for the search and any evidence found (or planted!) at the scene. Be cooperative but firm. Talk less, especially if you’re nervous.

The cases highlighted here are both sad and infuriating, but the work is so necessary and these difficult conversations must be had. Cannabis reform IS criminal justice reform. Georgia is long overdue.

If you don’t have time for the full video, here are some key cases of police-perpetuated injustice in the name of drug enforcement:

  • Adrianne Johnson [no relation] was delivered to an emergency room while suffering an overdose.  People seeking immediate medical treatment are protected from prosecution, a shield law that saves lives by encouraging people to get help (or get a friend’s help) even if they’ve been doing something illegal. But Robins Police Officer David Adriance violated that protection and pursued criminal charges against her for drug possession.

While cannabis use can’t cause overdose, cannabis prohibition and fear of arrest keep some people from calling paramedics or going to hospitals, or contacting police when they need those services most. If Ms. Johnson had a small amount of cannabis with her when she sought medical treatment, there would be no excuse for prosecuting her.

  • Keishaun Moon was the passenger in a car pulled over near Conyers, for a tag light violation, though the tag is brightly lit in the police video. The officer who stopped them claimed to “smell a faint odor of raw marijuana” in the vehicle. Mr. Moon got out and was calm and cooperative for ten minutes while the vehicle and its driver were searched. He gave the police his name and spelled it. Some nine minutes after removing Mr. Moon from the vehicle, a police officer lunged at him, grabbed him by the throat, choked him, and bent him backward over the hood of the police car. Unable to find any other pretext to arrest him (and on a traffic stop arising from the clearly-lit tag light) the officer accused Moon of attempting to swallow evidence, specifically cannabis, and arrested him anyway.

Traffic stops and the ‘odor of marijuana’ are used as pretexts to violate civil liberties, including the 4th and 5th Amendments. In an unnecessary traffic stop, the mere idea of a citizen having or using cannabis – in its presumed flagrancy for the law, perhaps – changed the officers’ behavior, making the encounter much more confrontational and dangerous for all involved.

  • Rainer Smith was killed in his home after drug task force officers raided his property at 2 am in unmarked vehicles, with a search warrant for a cannabis grow. He was shot as he defended his home, fiancee, and child from what he surely thought was a violent burglary. Mr. Smith was shot to death in a bedroom hallway, perhaps before he ever realized the men in his house were police. The choice to execute a drug warrant so aggressively in the middle of the night resulted in a senseless loss of life. A young family was devastated. An officer was wounded. No cannabis grow or plants were found.

The brutality of such a heavily armed, SWAT-like home invasion has no relationship to the scale of the “crime” of growing a plant – even if Mr. Smith had been. Drug war era search tactics create situations where good people die needlessly. The human costs of enforcing an ineffective, outdated law are still extremely high.

With Alex to walk us through the documents, we can see how police officers’ stories subtly changed as they closed ranks. But the strength of one surviving witness (Mr. Rainer’s fiancee) who told her story led to changes in police department policy.

In the questions section, Alex reminds us what crucial Constitutional rights you’d surrender by taking a guilty plea – even diversion or probation.

Criminalizing people for cannabis worsens inequality, invites needless violence, and fosters distrust between police and their communities.

Many thanks to Alex Johnson for reminding us of the stakes of the fight. The Drug War MUST end. ?