Know Your Rights: Charlotte criminal defense attorney and father Robert K. Corbett, III shares advice for protestors

By Robert K. Corbett, III

June 7, 2020

Over the last four weeks, our country has seen massive unrest concerning police brutality. Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Dreasjon “Sean” Reid and, recently, George Floyd have lost their lives callously at the hands of the police or those “acting” as law enforcement. 

The point of this article isn’t to make the sweeping determination that all police officers are disillusioned regarding racial biases and inequities. But, as I tell my son– and write this for you to share with yours– his skin tone and mine is perceived to be a deadly weapon. It’s a disheartening notion that must change. 

Robert K. Corbett, III and son Ezra. Courtesy

As he enters his teenage years, I have a duty to teach my son how to navigate this new normal we’re in. COVID-19 disrupted his school year but negative stimuli and blanket stereotypes have the potential to disrupt his adulthood. As a father, I can’t idly stand by and let that happen. As a neighbor, I can’t idly stand by and let that happen to you or your loved ones. And, as a legal professional, I consider it necessary to help you lead these necessary conversations in your home. 

In 1961 James Baldwin stated in a radio interview that “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a state of rage almost, almost all of the time— and in one’s work. And part of the rage is this: It isn’t only what is happening to you. But it’s what’s happening all around you and all of the time in the face of the most extraordinary and criminal indifference, indifference of most white people in this country, and their ignorance.” It is this seemingly indifference to life that has fueled protests not only in our city, but coast to coast and in other areas around the world. 

Peaceful protesters gather in front of the Charlotte Government Center located at 600 E. 4th St. Photo: Brandon Lunsford

Every incident that makes the news or spreads across social media becomes another exercise of where I have to explain to my son the “Rules of Engagement” with law enforcement or how not to appear threatening in public spaces. Although his mom and I are his protectors, we are not always going to be around, and avoiding these talks is a dereliction and failure of our duties as parents to properly prepare him for the realities of adulthood. As he watches images of protests he, like many other young people, feel compelled to participate. During our discussions, I remind him protesting is legal and, would also contend, can be necessary and morally right.  

A permit to protest is not necessarily required. The 1st Amendment to the Constitution of the United States grants in part “freedom of assembly.” However, this constitutional right does not protect you from all criminal liability. For instance, breaking a window to a car or business may be an obvious crime. Other charges you’ll see are Failure to Disperse or Disorderly Conduct, which happens when you fail to leave an area after commands from law enforcement (usually after they deem things unsafe). 

Speakers from Kidz Fed Up and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Branch of the NAACP addressed the crowd. Photo: Brandon Lunsford

If you are having these discussions and/or are planning to participate in the protests, here are a few tips to remember:

1.)  If you are stopped by law enforcement, ask if you are free to go or are being detained.  If they say you are not being detained, walk away.

2.) You cannot bring a firearm to a protest unless you have a valid permit to carry a concealed weapon. 

3.) You have the right to record law enforcement, but you do not have the right to interfere or obstruct an officer from doing their duties. Recording from a safe distance is not considered interference.

4.) If you are arrested, exercise your 5th Amendment right, DO NOT SAY ANYTHING. DO NOT ANSWER any questions. Tell them that you want an attorney. Say unequivocally that you want a lawyer. Once you say that, all questioning has to stop and cannot continue unless YOU restart the conversation.

5.) Memorize or write down on your arm the name and number of a contact person or jail support organization.

6.) We are still in the midst of COVID-19, so wear a face covering.

7.) Consider downloading the Signal app to aid with communication between you and your loved ones or fellow protestors. 

Know your rights and learn more from the ACLU Protesters’ Rights resource page.

Robert K. Corbett, III is the managing attorney at The Corbett Law Firm PLLC, a criminal defense firm, located in the Historic West End of West Charlotte.

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