The Right to Know: Legal Rights 101

Photo by Ivan Aleksic on Unsplash

Grace Monzel, Associate Member, University of Cincinnati Law Review

I. Introduction

The Annenberg Public Policy Center conducted a national survey which discovered that many Americans are inadequately informed about constitutional provisions.[1] The survey found that “more than a third of those surveyed (37 percent) can’t name any of the rights guaranteed under the First Amendment,” according to the Annenberg Public Policy Center.[2] These results present critical questions regarding the legal protection of people living in the United States. If Americans do not know their basic legal rights, are they truly being protected by the law? Further, since this statistic shows a lack of knowledge of legal rights, how can people living in the United States become better informed about these rights? The following article will explore answers to these questions.

The background section of this article will first list examples of some of the basic legal rights that people living in the United States should know. Next, the background section will provide an explanation and analysis of relevant cases where defendants did not know their legal rights. In the analysis section, a solution will be offered regarding how the United States can better inform people of their legal rights and thus offer greater legal protection for its residents. Lastly, the conclusion will discuss the positive impacts that the solution could have on protecting defendants.

II. Background

Every United States resident has legal rights that must be protected and complied with. One area of law that involves people’s fundamental constitutional rights in the criminal justice system is the legal area of criminal procedure.[3] Criminal procedure includes many rights such as those stated in the Fourth Amendment, Fifth Amendment, and Sixth Amendment. The Fourth Amendment protects people against “unreasonable searches and seizures.”[4] The Fifth Amendment ensures an “indictment of a Grand Jury,” and it protects people from being a “witness against himself” in any criminal case.[5] The Fifth Amendment also prohibits any person from being “subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb,” which means a person cannot be prosecuted twice for the same crime.[6] Lastly, the Fifth Amendment guarantees that a person will not be “deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”[7] Under the Sixth Amendment, criminal defendants are guaranteed the right to a “speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury.”[8] These rights are crucial for Americans to know and understand in order to be fully protected during criminal law procedures, such as police seizures when getting pulled over while driving, or even during less common criminal procedures, such as when police officers request to search people’s homes or vehicles. The following cases will focus on legal rights stated in the Fourth Amendment.

In California v. Greenwood, Greenwood was not aware that his garbage bags, once placed outside of his house to be collected by a trash collector, no longer had a reasonable expectation of privacy under the Fourth Amendment.[9] In the case, an investigator at the police department received information that suggested that Greenwood might be engaged in drug trafficking.[10] The officer acquired from the trash collector the garbage bags Greenwood had left on the curb in front of his house, searched the bags, and found items in the bags that suggested the use of narcotics.[11] The officer then used the information from the garbage bags in support of a warrant to search Greenwood’s home, which was then executed and used to find more narcotics, and Greenwood was arrested.[12] The Court concluded that the garbage bags were not protected under the Fourth Amendment, as it is common knowledge that garbage bags are easily accessible to animals and people once left on a curb of a public street, so Greenwood could have no reasonable expectation of privacy for the items in the bags.[13] This case holding is arguably important for the average person to know in order to protect their personal information and items because many people dispose of personal items and information in garbage bags. Unless a local government has laws or regulations stating otherwise, once disposed of on the curb, a court may deem trash to have no expectation of privacy, and therefore police officers could legally access the items and information contained in a garbage bag.[14]

The following are more examples of important cases that show that people living in the United States should be aware of their legal rights. In Florida v. Wells, a Highway Patrol trooper pulled over Wells because he was speeding.[15] The trooper smelled alcohol on Wells’ breath and arrested him.[16] The trooper told Wells that his car was going to be impounded, so Wells consented to open the trunk of his car.[17] An inventory search of Wells’ car revealed marijuana cigarette butts as well as a locked suitcase that was located in the trunk of the car, which was opened and found to contain marijuana.[18] Since the Florida Highway Patrol had no policy regarding “the opening of closed containers encountered during an inventory search,” the Supreme Court of Florida held that, “absent such a policy, the instant search was not sufficiently regulated to satisfy the Fourth Amendment.”[19] Therefore, the marijuana in the suitcase was correctly suppressed.[20] This case shows that closed containers in a car trunk can be protected from being searched under the Fourth Amendment if there is no policy stating otherwise. Therefore, people living in the United States should know and understand their state’s local policies and laws.

Lastly, in Georgia v. Randolph, Randolph’s wife, who he had formerly separated from, gave an officer permission to search their marital residence after Randolph, who was also present, had refused to give consent.[21] The Court held that, “a physically present inhabitant’s express refusal of consent to a police search is dispositive as to him, regardless of the consent of a fellow occupant.”[22] This means that if one resident consents to a search, but another resident does not give consent, the warrantless search will be considered unreasonable and will be invalid as to person who did not give consent.[23] By having the knowledge of these legal rights, people in the United States can better protect themselves, their property, and even potentially avoid legal problems.

III. Analysis

Since many people are unaware of their legal rights, it is important for schools and learning centers in the United States to find an effective way to inform and teach people of their basic rights. A possible solution would be to create and implement a “Legal Rights 101” class that could be taught in high schools, community centers, and more. For high school classes, the course could be taught prior to when most students begin to get their driver’s licenses. This class would teach students some of their most crucial legal rights. Further, the class could also have guest speakers including lawyers, judges, and police officers.

The class would cover fundamental and crucial legal rights topics. One of these topics could include Fifth Amendment Miranda rights, which were determined in the case Miranda v. Arizona.[24] A person’s Miranda rights include the right to remain silent.[25] Further, under Miranda rights, a person has the right of being informed that anything they say can and will be used against them in court.[26] Lastly, Miranda rights include having the right to an attorney, and if a person is unable to afford an attorney, one will be appointed for them.[27] According to Palo Alto University, “most Americans do not have a complete understanding of their Miranda rights . . . even those who are able to recall the Miranda warning show misconceptions about its meaning.”[28] Having knowledge of one’s Miranda rights could potentially make a big difference in the ultimate charges in a case. For example, knowing that under your Miranda rights you have the choice of whether to answer a police officer’s questions until an attorney is present can prevent self-incrimination. By teaching high school students these rights, they will be better protected when they begin driving and as they enter into college and adulthood.

The course should also specifically cover people’s rights when they are stopped by the police, especially when driving, as this is a common incident that most people will face while living in the United States. Students who are learning how to drive or who already have their driver’s licenses could be educated on how their rights under the Fourth Amendment are affected when they are stopped by the police. Specifically, the class could cover what to do if a police officer asks to search their vehicle or their belongings.[29] Further, students who live near the border could be educated on how their rights under the Fourth Amendment are affected by their proximity to the border.[30] Lastly, students could be educated on how their rights under the Fourth Amendment are affected if they are arrested or detained.[31] These are all crucial rights and pieces of advice that could potentially reduce negative police interactions and also better protect people when they are pulled over, searched, or detained.

Lastly, the course should cover how one should talk and interact with police officers when a person is pulled over or is involved in other police encounters. The CriminalDefenseLawyer is an online source that publishes articles that explain criminal law with the goal of educating society and those involved in criminal cases.[32] The site provides a guide which discusses detailed suggestions on how to act when you get pulled over, such as placing your hands on the top of your steering wheel so that they are visible to a police officer.[33] The guide also explains the procedures that police officers follow when they pull a person over for situations such as drunk driving.[34] Overall, these are all examples of crucial knowledge and  suggestions that the average person living in the United States should know in order to keep themselves legally protected when being pulled over on the road.

One program that currently provides a legal curriculum for high school students is created by the Center for Legal & Court Technology (CLCT).[35] “CLCT has developed a series of introductory law courses for high school and university students. This program gives students the opportunity to experience courses ​in the comfort of their homes using an interactive videoconferencing platform,” according to the CLCT. Further, the Street Law Inc. provides high-school level courses that help young people to become active and engaged by teaching them knowledge and skills to empower them to change their communities.[36] The Street Law Inc. even helps support teachers who want to start a law course at their own high schools.[37] These current programs show that it is possible to create a strong introductory legal curriculum for high schoolers, community centers, and more.

IV. Conclusion

Statistically, a significant number of Americans are not fully aware of basic Constitutional provisions.[38] This article began with the questions: if Americans do not know their basic legal rights, are they truly being protected by the law? Further, since it has been statistically shown that there is a lack of knowledge about legal rights in the United States, how can schools and learning centers better teach and protect people? Arguably, if people do not know their legal rights, they are not fully protected. In order to better protect Americans’ rights, it is crucial for people living in the United States to know and understand the relevant laws that could affect them throughout their lifetime. Schools and learning centers in the United States can better protect people by implementing an introductory course in high schools that teaches students their fundamental and essential legal rights. Overall, these courses would have positive impacts for protecting defendants. In the United States, we are born with many rights and it is time to use a Legal Rights 101 course to provide people with the most important right of all: the right to know.


[1] Americans Are Poorly Informed About Basic Constitutional Provisions, Anneberg Public Policy Center (Sept. 12, 2017), https://www.annenbergpublicpolicycenter.org/americans-are-poorly-informed-about-basic-constitutional-provisions/.  

[2] Id.

[3] Your Basic Constitutional Rights in the Criminal Justice System, GeorgiaLegalAid.org (last visited Apr. 26, 2021), https://www.georgialegalaid.org/resource/your-basic-constitutional-rights-in-the-crimi.

[4] U.S. Const. amend. IV.

[5] U.S. Const. amend. V.

[6] Id.; Double Jeopardy, Cornell Law School (last visited Apr. 26, 2021), https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/double_jeopardy.

[7] U.S. Const. amend. V.

[8] U.S. Const. amend. VI.

[9] California v. Greenwood, 486 U.S. 35, 39-41 (1988).

[10] Id. at 37.

[11] Id. at 37-38.

[12] Id. at 38.

[13] Id. at 40-41.

[14] Is it legal for someone to go through your trash?, Resident Community News Group, Inc. (Apr. 2, 2020), https://residentnews.net/2020/04/02/is-it-legal-for-someone-to-go-through-your-trash/.

[15] Florida v. Wells, 495 U.S. 1, 2 (1990).

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Id.

[19] Id. at 4-5.

[20] Id. at 5.

[21] Georgia v. Randolph, 547 U.S. 103, 106-07 (2006).

[22] Id. at 122–23.

[23] Id. at 106.

[24] Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 498 (1966).

[25] FindLaw Staff, Fifth Amendment Miranda Rights, FindLaw (last updated Aug. 12, 2020), https://www.findlaw.com/criminal/criminal-rights/miranda-rights-and-the-fifth-amendment.html.

[26] Id.

[27] Id.

[28] Most Americans Do NOT have a Complete Understanding of their Miranda Rights, Concept Palo Alto University (last visited Apr. 26, 2021), https://concept.paloaltou.edu/most-americans-do-not-have-a-complete-understanding-of-their-miranda-rights/.

[29] KNOW YOUR RIGHTS Stopped by Police, ACLU (last visited Apr. 26, 2021), https://www.aclu.org/know-your-rights/stopped-by-police/.

[30] Id.

[31] Id.

[32] Learn About Criminal Law and Procedures, CriminalDefenseLawyer (last visited Apr. 26, 2021), https://www.criminaldefenselawyer.com/.

[33] Ave Mince-Didier, How to Talk to Police When You’re Pulled Over, CriminalDefenseLawyer (last visited Apr. 26, 2021), https://www.criminaldefenselawyer.com/resources/how-talk-police-when-youre-pulled-over.htm.

[34] Id.

[35] Law-Related Education, Center For Legal & Court Technology (last visited Apr. 26, 2021), https://www.legaltechcenter.net/courses-and-training/legal-education-for-high-school-students/.

[36] High School Law Course, Street Law Inc. (last visited Apr. 26, 2021), https://www.streetlaw.org/programs/high-school-law-course.

[37] Id.  

[38] Americans Are Poorly Informed About Basic Constitutional Provisions, Anneberg Public Policy Center (Sept. 12, 2017), https://www.annenbergpublicpolicycenter.org/americans-are-poorly-informed-about-basic-constitutional-provisions/.