Imagine you’re driving and, behind you, a police officer turns on blue lights. You hear sirens and pull over.
You lower your window as the officer approaches.
If the officer suspects you’ve been drinking, do you have the right to refuse to take a field sobriety test or blow into a blood-alcohol reader? If the officer wants to search your car, can you say no?
You shouldn’t have to guess about your rights during an encounter with law enforcement, says 36-year-old tech entrepreneur and Davidson College graduate Mbey Njie. In both scenarios, DUI and police search laws vary by state.
Njie created a smartphone app called “Legal Equalizer.” It helps you understand your rights and also alerts selected contacts in your phone that you’ve been stopped by a police officer. A built-in video feature uses your phone’s camera to record the interaction and the video is automatically saved.
The app is birthed from Njie’s frustration, as a black man in North Carolina and Georgia, who says he is frequently pulled over for minor traffic violations.
He attended Davidson College, just north of Charlotte, in the early 2000s. Then, the school had few black students and nearly 90 percent of the surrounding small town was white.
“If you went off campus 10 times, every four to six times, as a young black male, you’re going to get pulled over by a police officer from the town of Davidson,” Njie said. “Most times, they would try to search your car and ask you questions.”
None of the traffic stops in Davidson resulted in tickets or arrests, he said.
After college, in his home state of Georgia, Njie says he had similar encounters with police.
The first version of the Legal Equalizer app emerged in 2015 and was marketed mostly as a police watchdog tool. It was a year after Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., setting off a week of protests. A few months later, 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot and killed by a Cleveland police officer.
The high-profile nature of deaths at the hands of police gave rise to law enforcement agencies nationally buying body-worn body cameras to record police interactions with the public.
Legal Equalizer, on the other hand, puts the camera in the hands of a person stopped by a police officer.
App offers library of laws
In the first two years, Njie’s Legal Equalizer saw nearly 100,000 app downloads. Similar apps exist from the American Civil Liberties Union, Cop Watch and Five-O.
To set his apart, Njie has expanded the scope to include links to local legal help and descriptions of state and federal laws relevant to police searches, DUIs, and drug possession. Njie hopes to broaden the app’s tools to be useful for victims of domestic violence and people targeted by immigration officers.
He’s found support within law enforcement.
In late 2016, after launching Legal Equalizer, Njie was critical of local police officers in Georgia. On Twitter, he singled out Dr. Cedric Alexander, then DeKalb County’s director of public safety. Njie said too many black drivers were targeted with minor traffic violations.
Alexander, who is also black, responded to Njie: “Find a way to make a difference and not just complain. Get on the resolution train.”
In a later tweet, Alexander gave Njie his phone number and offered to meet.
“He was slamming me. But, that’s part of what we have to do in policing. We have to reach out,” Alexander said.
In their meeting, Njie explained the Legal Equalizer app.
Alexander, a former police chief and now deputy mayor of Rochester, N.Y., supports Legal Equalizer as a citizen education tool. But, he cautions against using the app’s bank of law briefs to argue with police officers.
“Don’t say ‘Well, under North Carolina law, this and that,” Alexander said. “This is something we can take up in the court room … We don’t want officers to allow themselves to get pulled into a legal debate on the street.”
If used properly, the app shouldn’t create a problem during most traffic stops or police encounters, Alexander said.
Legal Equalizer’s library of laws cover every state in the U.S. and its video feature is free to use. The attorney on speed dial function is in the early stages of development and will include fees for users.
So far, Njie has focused on building attorney resources and Legal Equalizer users in the Atlanta area. In mid-February, he began marketing the app and recruiting attorneys in Charlotte.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department says its officers are accustomed to being recorded during traffic stops and other activities because every officer wears a body camera. In Charlotte, it’s routine for a driver or a passenger to record a police officer with a smartphone, says Lt. Brad Koch, a CMPD spokesperson.
Koch says traffic stops pose safety risks to police officers and it’s important that drivers and passengers to keep their hands visible. That means reaching for your phone or moving quickly to record the encounter could be problematic.
“The two most important things citizens can do whenever they are pulled over is to comply and cooperate,” Koch said. “It is imperative that the officer can see the individual’s hands and that they do not make any sudden movements.”