Cameron Bowman is the festival scene’s inside man in the legal world. Known as the Festival Lawyer, his long career as an attorney has seen him involved in cases ranging from the death penalty and to criminal abuse. However, his true passion is defending people from the abuse of their civil liberties. He’s lectured festival fans and promoters alike about their rights and how best to avoid sticky legal entanglements by clearly understanding their rights. His heart, like so many music lovers, will always belong to the festival world.
After taking a break from seeing shows and going to festivals for a brief detour for law school and a fast growing legal practice, he re-embraced his true passion: music. Amazed at the progression of the festival culture nationwide, he was sad to see that one thing hadn’t changed, the ease in which police were managing to trick people into acting against their own best interests during encounters with the general public. For years he’s written guest columns on protecting your rights, advised promoters on how best to keep their patrons safe from harassment, lectured eager festival goers about their rights at workshops, and is working to build a nationwide network of lawyers to help with concertgoers’ legal needs.
We thought it might be a good time to talk with The Festival Lawyer, to get a bit of perspective and advice on how to handle any uncomfortable police encounters along the way to and at the gatherings we all love.
Live For Live Music: Normally when I record these interviews, I warn folks not to admit to any crimes they’re not ready to face. I’m guessing that’s less necessary here…
Cameron Bowman: That’s sound advice.
L4LM: I understand you’re not just a lawyer but you’re a bit of a musician as well. It kinda seems like fate that you ended up adopting the role of “The Festival Lawyer.”
CB: A musician is stretching it a bit. (Chuckles) I was really into music for a long time, but then I dropped it. I was the drummer in a really terrible band called The Throb. I was a college radio DJ and I even thought about making a career in some kind of music related area. But then I got to law school and I just got busier and busier and I just stopped going to concerts. But then when I finally started getting back out there it just felt so natural.
L4LM: So what was it that brought you back to the concert life.
CB: I was dating somebody who took me to Coachella and after that I was just blown away. Festivals were so different when I came back. When I was going to festivals they were just a one day thing, somewhere green like a ball park, and there was really not much to it, just a bunch of bands. Then when I started going to festivals again I was really just fascinated with the culture and the spirit of it all. It was so much different and I loved everything about it. I was hooked again, I started going to concerts and festivals a lot.
L4LM: What year was it that you returned to the festival scene?
CB: About six or seven years ago I started going again, and I’ve gone to Coachella every year since then. I’ve gone to every Outside Lands since then and a couple of dozen other live music events a year.
L4LM: So what was it that made the law so attractive to you?
CB: It’s interesting. I went to an interview for a job in Washington, DC, and I got it in a very flukey way. I was working for a congressman. I never had any intention to go to law school, never had any intention to be a lawyer. I went to law school because I thought I would like to keep working in Washington. When I got to law school I was one of the few students who hadn’t thought about it their whole lives. I was never like that. I just thought it was all really interesting. I thought it was important. I just really enjoyed it on a personal level. I realized it was something I was good at and I enjoyed it.
It was one of those instances, where, and this is true a lot in life where, a small decision ends up having gigantic consequences. My sister said “Do you wanna take a road trip with me to DC. I need someone to share the drive?” and I said sure. I went with her and I ended up walking around the city looking for a job. I got an internship at a congressman’s office and that caused me to want to go to law school so I could keep working there. Now here I am and I’ve been practicing law now for the last twenty plus years.
L4LM: There have been a few events recently that seem to fit squarely in your stated raison d’etre of helping festival goers know and exercise their rights. The biggest of these was the large amount of arrests made of people headed towards and into the Okeechobbee Music Festival in Florida a couple weeks ago and the subsequent mass dismissal of the charges against them. What exactly did the police do wrong?
CM: That’s an interesting case. I have written before about what I call “Legal Urban Myths”and there is a very popular misconception that everyone believes to be legally true. There’s this belief that if your ticket says “I agree to be searched” that by itself waives all your Fourth Amendment rights and that police can search you at will. I would say that if you asked the average concert goer, they would say that that was their understanding of the law. But the law actually says you have the right to be free from search unless you give consent to be searched or you give what is called, “Implied Consent.”
This is sometimes called an “Administrative Search.” The courts really don’t like these type of searches. They don’t like that you’re being required to agree to be searched as a condition of going into someplace unless your rights are being fully explained to you. In this case what the D.A. said was “We don’t think that they complied with the things that they have to do for an ‘Administrative Search’ to be valid.” The specific example that he gave was that they were required to have prominent signs that said you agree to be searched as a condition of entry. They also needed to make it clear to people coming in that they could withdraw their consent at any time and that if you say “I don’t wanna be searched after all” that you will be kicked out and your money refunded.
So what they were doing wrong was not giving people proper notice about the search, and not letting people know that they could refuse to be searched.
L4LM: You’re touching on a very important topic there. A lot of people don’t actually understand what their rights are in these situations. I know you’ve written and lectured about this topic many, many times, but could you give us a quick overview of exactly what your rights are in a situation like that?
CM: First of all, I think that you’re right. The reality is there’s not a lot of good, basic legal education out there. We don’t tell people what their rights and obligations are. It’s a really important topic. It’s very important for people to understand their rights, especially these days. I would say the most common area where people run into trouble is first of all, they assume that festivals are basically a fourth amendment free zone. They think that somehow, because it’s on private property, that you paid an entrance fee and someone else owns the place that festival security can do whatever they want to you, and legally that’s just not true
For the most part, it’s just like being anywhere else. The cops have to have a reason to stop you. They normally have to have a reason to search you unless you agree to it. To me, the first step is for people to realize that they do have rights. That’s the most common misconception. People don’t think they have any rights. But in reality you do. Every state is different, every situation is different. The most important thing to do is to educate yourself, go read about the law and find out more for yourself. Don’t just assume that when you go to an event like this that you don’t have any rights and you have to do what anyone says and that you’re basically at the whim of whoever you’re dealing with.
L4LM: So inside a festival you can just refuse to be searched?
CB: Well, it’s hard to get into specifics without having the exact details of the situation, but let’s say you’re on the grounds and a cop says they wanna search your bag or backpack or whatever. There’s a lot of legal factors involved, for example, whether you are dealing with a private security guard vs. a police officer. But in general yes, the police have to have some reason to stop and search you.
In general, I’ll tell people to know their rights in terms of the following:
Don’t agree or consent to any searches. That’s absolutely fundamental. If the cops are gonna search and they think they have a right to do it they’ll search you without your permission. But don’t make it easier for them. If they say “I wanna search this” your response is “No.” If they say they’re gonna go ahead and do it anyway let them do it. Cooperate. Be pleasant. Don’t be a jerk. Don’t fight with the cops. Don’t run. But don’t just agree to be searched.
Another good thing to always keep in mind is that there’s never a good reason to give a statement to the police. Whether it’s about what you were doing, or whose bag this is or who you’re with. Again, obviously, don’t be a jerk. But If it gets to a point where you’re like “Okay, wait a minute…I’m under investigation…they’re talking to me” DON’T give a statement.
Probably the most important thing I advise people is, find out what’s happening by asking the question “Am I free to go or am I being detained?” If the police feel you’re under investigation and that they have a reason to stop you and investigate you they will. But by asking that question, “Am I free to go?” or something similar like “Am I being detained” you instantly know if this is just a friendly encounter with the cops or you’re actually under investigation. If you are under investigation, you need to keep your mouth shut, ask for a lawyer and not agree to any searches.
L4LM: And this advice works the same for outside the festival as well, correct? Say, on the way in through the gates?
CB: Yes. It’s funny, the Okeechobee cases are probably the area where your rights are the least. I would say that walking into a festival to be searched as you enter is a place where your rights are at a least. Your rights are at their greatest in your home.
L4LM: It sounds like the best answer, when dealing with the cops, is to just say no.
CB: (Chuckles) Yeah. I always tell people in interactions with police officers is be pleasant, be polite, don’t run away or do anything stupid. But always keep in the back of your mind that your position is “I don’t agree to be searched. I’d like to leave if I can. Am I being detained?” Don’t make a statement. Basically there’s nothing you can do at that point if you’re under investigation that can help you. All you can do is hurt yourself and make it easier for the police officers.
L4LM: How transferable is this advice from state to state?
CB: That’s a great question. Everything I write and everything I do, I always put that caveat in there. I tell people that they’re going to have to do some leg work. You need to do a little research on your own for your particular state, or the state the festival is in. The bigger points I’ve talked about, such as not agreeing to be searched, asking if you’re being detained, not making a statement and asking for a lawyer pretty much go across the board for every state. Let me give you an example.
I wrote a column about a year ago about whether or not you need a search warrant to search a vehicle. In California you don’t, as long as there is probable cause. But I had a bunch of people write to me to say that in Louisiana or some other states you DO need a search warrant because there’s a separate part of their state constitution that gives them additional rights. So there very definitely can be state by state variations and I try and always talk and write in terms of things that apply to everybody in every situation. But then I strongly encourage everybody to check into it themselves.
L4LM: You’ve put in a lot of efforts to educate people about their rights going to and from and actually AT music festivals across the country. Have you gotten any backlash from your employers, peers or authority figures?
CB: You know, very, very little. It’s interesting. The festival community is very helpful. People are very excited. They wanna help with the project. They wanna help with what i’m doing. Once in awhile I’ll get some person writing to me saying I’m just trying to help people take drugs, but honestly, very, very little. In fact, I was a D.A. for a lot of years and I have a lot of judges, D.A.s and cop friends and most of them agree that people need to know their rights. Of course, they ask me to be sure to never teach people to be aggressive jerks to people.
That’s never my thing. I’m all about peace and love and taking care of each other. Education is really important.
L4LM: That’s a fine sentiment. You mentioned you spent some time across the aisle on the prosecution side of the equation. I’m guessing your time there gave you some insight into the way the state operates.
L4LM: Do you see any kind of attitude change on the part of law enforcement thanks to the loosening of laws in regards to low scale drug use and possession?
CB: I think that we’re finally starting to see some cracks in the war on drugs. The war on drugs has been a colossal failure. The thinking is starting to change. it’s not opening up yet, but I’m talking to cops and they’re saying off the record that they know it’s not working and we need to change. The old school prohibition mind set is still there though, and there are people who want to fight the drug war to the last bullet.
L4LM: With the legalization of marijuana in some states showing signs of spreading, do you worry at all that this is gonna hurt your business?
CB: (Laughs) You have to choose what you think is right, even if it means you get a few less dollars. I guess in a big picture way it might benefit me if more people were getting locked up, but I’ll happily live with the loss of business.
L4LM: It’s like doctors in a way. Their business model would seem to benefit from not actually healing people, but of course that’s what they want to do.
CB: (Laughs) Exactly.
L4LM: So you started as a prosecutor. What led to your decision to switch sides?
CB: I left the office about, god, ten years ago and honestly, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a lawyer anymore. I went through a whole “What do I want to do with me life” kinda thing. I started doing a little criminal defense work just to see what it was like, and I really enjoyed it. It got me reinvigorated. I always felt the British have a better system. Over there you’re a prosecutor for awhile, then they flip you and you’re a defender for a while. It’s really important to see the other side. It would be hard to imagine going back, but I think the experience was really important to me.
L4LM: That’s interesting. I’ve never heard of that aspect of the British legal system.
CB: Yeah, they’ll normally have barristers that work on the prosecution side, then they switch them. And all the people I know who’ve done that, followed the same path as me all have the same things to say. It really is eye opening. You see the other side, you see another part of the human aspect. If you just do defense work you don’t see things like the victims of crimes and how they feel. I think it would be really helpful for everyone to experience both sides of the criminal justice equation.
L4LM: We’ve all seen the guys going around in teams with brand new tye dyes and running shoes at music festivals. How prevalent is the use of undercovers at music festivals, and what exactly can and can’t they say to folks in their attempts to arrest them?
CB: That’s another big understanding people have about their rights. I think the use of undercover officers at festivals across the country is very prevalent. Police departments use them at festivals to one degree or another. For example, here in northern California they’ve gone as far as to wear the “Kandi,” that’s with a “K,” they’ll be giving out kandi. They’ll be in ridiculous outfits. They’ll be, like in a pink bunny kinda thing and really really trying to catch people off their guard. Undercover operatives are way more prevalent at these events than people may realize.
For example, at Beyond Wonderland last year officers were really skirting the edge of the law. It wasn’t quite entrapment. They’d say things like “My girlfriend really just needs one. She’s hurting” or “It’d be cool if you could help me out, it’s for my friend.” The actual law states that cops CAN lie to you. They can say that they’re not a cop, even though they are, no matter what you may have heard. The other thing people need to understand is that it’s not entrapment for them to pose as a raver or talk about PLUR or whatever. What they can’t do put you in a position where they make you think what you are doing isn’t illegal.
They can’t try and get someone to commit a crime that wouldn’t normally commit. If they say anything to you to make you think something illegal isn’t a crime, that’s considered entrapment. But that’s a very high standard for people to show.
L4LM: So if someone gets stopped at a music festival, or inside, who should they call? You?
CB: One of the projects I’m working with is with the Drug Policy Alliance, or DPA. They’re one of the major groups trying to end the drug war. One of the projects we’re working on together is the Fest Law Network. That would be made up of attorneys and law students across the country who would agree to give those in need of advice a free consultation, tell you what to expect in the legal process and tell you what questions to ask if you decide to go with a public defender.
It’s all part of the “Take care of each other” life. But yeah, they should call me, or someone. I really don’t advise anyone to go into a court situation without asking as many questions as they can and doing as much research to help themselves as possible.
L4LM: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us and for all you’re doing to help keep people advised of their legal rights in some pretty scary situations.
CB: Happy to do it. It’s been wonderful. Like I said, people in the festival community have been very supportive of what I’ve been doing, and that’s meant a lot to me. Everybody has been so positive, telling me to keep doing it, so that’s what I’m gonna do.