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Get It Right: Rights you need to know

By Natalie J. Newman on November 1st, 2006 • Government, Insuring your stuff, Managing your money, Life
Originally appeared in: Winter 2006

As young Americans, we have a wide array of freedoms and rights, but a disturbing number of us don't even know the basics.

As young Americans, we have a wide array of freedoms and rights, but a disturbing number of us don't even know the basics. While over half of Americans can name at least two cartoon characters from The Simpsons, only 28 percent can name more than one of their First Amendment freedoms. (That's the freedom of speech, press, religion, assembly, and petition.) Knowing your rights and how to exercise them can save you a lot of grief, time and money. Here are a few situations where knowing who's right counts.

Situation #1

You get pulled over and the police officer starts asking you questions. "Do you know why I pulled you over?" "Can I take a look in your car?"

who's right?

It can be intimidating, but you shouldn't be afraid to exercise your rights. Just remember: always be polite, nonthreatening, and keep your hands in plain sight.

  • You do not have to admit to speeding or anything else. That's "taking the fifth" (as in the Fifth Amendment).
  • You have the right to refuse requests to search your personal property. You can say, "I do not consent to any searches of my car or my private property."
  • You have a right to appear in court to dispute your ticket.
you should:
  • Document everything, including the officer's name.
  • Take a ticket graciously. Criminal court is a lot scarier than traffic court.
Situation #2

Your landlord just left you a note. She's increasing your rent $100 next month. Can she do that?

who's right?
  • If you signed a lease that specified possible rent increases, you will likely have to cough up the dough. Do make sure you have been given proper notice.
  • If your lease doesn't allow for an increase, then your landlord needs your consent to raise rent, or will have to wait until the lease is up.
  • If your residence is sold, the new owner is bound under the old tenancy contracts.
you should:
  • Always read your rental agreement before signing, and again afterwards if asked to pay extra.
  • Keep copies of all correspondence.
  • Learn what the state and local tenancy laws are by visiting nolo.com/statute/state.cfm to find a directory of your state's statutes.
Situation #3

You are pregnant and worried about your job. With a baby on the way, is your job on the way out?

who's right?
  • The Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) prohibits employers from discriminating against women because they are temporarily and medically disabled by pregnancy, childbirth, or a related medical condition.
  • According to the PDA, you must be treated the same as other employees who are disabled by non-work-related conditions.
  • The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) might be able to protect your job when you need to take time off. Check the Department of Labor website for more specifics: dol.gov
you should:
  • Determine the appropriate time to notify your employer of your pregnancy. Read employee policies, seek legal advice, and evaluate your needs over the next year.
Situation #4

You have been called into active duty for the Navy. While you are out keeping the country safe, is there anything keeping your job safe as well?

who's right?
  • The Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994 (USERRA) extends the time you may be absent from work for uniformed services duty.
  • You have the right to reemployment when you return, even if you become disabled.
  • The USERRA applies very broadly to employers of all sizes and includes service for the National Guard, disaster response, and for active and inactive duty training, to name a few.
you should:
  • With few exceptions, provide notice to your employer as far in advance as possible.
  • Possibly submit an application for reemployment when you return, depending on the length of your absence.

Dealing with your landlord, boss, or a police officer is intimidating, but it helps knowing that just because you're young, doesn't mean you are always wrong.

The Bottom Line

One in five Americans believes the First Amendment grants them the right to own pets. Another one in five believes it also gives them the right to drive. (It does neither.) You don't have to go to law school, but you owe it to yourself to know the essentials before you end up owing someone else!

Sources: osha.gov; nlrb.gov; findlaw.com; about.com; mccormicktribune.org; workplacefairness.org; nolo.com; military.com; expertlaw.com; progressive.com

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