Barring Controversy, Here's Lowdown on 'Literacy' Test on Law

Klein is an attorney and president of The Times Valley and Ventura County Editions. Brown is professor of law emeritus at USC and chairman of the board for the National Center for Preventive Law

In last week's column, we reviewed the findings of the first "legal literacy" test sponsored by the State Bar of California. The telephone survey of 440 California adults demonstrated a significant lack of familiarity with fundamental legal topics.

One Legal View reader, Terry L. Dazey, a teacher in a continuation high school in Mission Viejo, writes that his students think they could do better than the general public. To allow those students, and other readers, the chance to test their legal acuity, we'll review the rest of the questions and answers today.

If you are sued for damaging someone else's property and you cannot afford to hire a lawyer, the court must appoint and pay for a lawyer to defend you. False. Indigent defendants only have the constitutional right to a lawyer in criminal cases. But only 31% of the California public knew it.

Which of the following best describes the U.S. Bill of Rights: A message of rebellion from the Founding Fathers to the British king? The introduction to the original Constitution? Any bill involving personal rights that Congress passes? The first 10 amendments to the original Constitution? Fewer than half, only 47%, knew that the Bill of Rights is the first 10 amendments to the Constitution.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that in some instances, the government can limit the right to free speech without violating the First Amendment to the Constitution. True. There were 54% who answered correctly. The Supreme Court has held that certain speech--shouting fire in a crowded theater, for instance--can be regulated.

An employer may legally require someone he or she is considering for a job to take a drug test before agreeing to hire that person. True. Court cases in the last few years have found that pre-employment drug tests do not violate the right of privacy, and a surprisingly high 66% knew that.

A husband can be found guilty of raping his wife. Nearly everyone, 90%, knew that this is true. Perhaps there have been enough news reports and television docudramas about such cases to make this widely known.

If you are physically threatened by another person, you may use deadly force, enough force to kill. Wrong. And 48% knew that the statement was false. You are permitted to use only reasonable force, which usually means that deadly force is only allowable in the face of deadly force.

If one spouse abandons the family or commits adultery, the other spouse is entitled in a divorce proceeding to get more than half the property owned jointly by the couple. No; such behavior does not affect the property distribution, and 57% knew that legal tidbit.

Both mothers and fathers have a legal duty to support their children. That's true, and 95% of the public knew it.

In California, to obtain a divorce all that a husband or wife has to show is that a marriage has broken down and there is no chance of their getting back together. This one is also a well-known fact: 79% had it right.

To sue another person in Small Claims Court, you may not request compensation for losses of more than $1,000, $3,000 or $5,000? The correct answer is $5,000, but that is a relatively recent change, so it is no surprise that only 24% could answer that question correctly.

And just to show you that there is never, ever unanimous agreement among lawyers about almost anything, even the questions and answers on this basic test, which were drafted and approved by the State Bar of California, consider the letter we received this week from criminal defense lawyer Ralph Novotney Jr.

Novotney challenges the answer to the question in last week's column: "If you resist arrest by a police officer, you have committed a crime even if you are innocent of any wrongdoing." The State Bar says it's true, and 87% of the respondents said it was true. But Novotney insists that "resistence to an unlawful arrest or a lawful arrest made with unreasonable force by a police officer is not, in fact, criminal conduct."

Klein is an attorney and president of The Times Valley and Ventura County Editions. Brown is professor of law emeritus at USC and chairman of the board for the National Center for Preventive Law. They cannot answer mail personally but will respond in this column to questions of general interest about law. Do not telephone. Write to Jeffrey S. Klein, The Times, 9211 Oakdale Ave. Chatsworth, Calif. 91311.

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