By Brett Gillin
It seems that every interaction between a police officer and a suspect is caught on tape these days. Thousands of would-be video journalists throughout the country are whipping out their cell phones and hitting record whenever someone is being arrested, and the legality of these actions has been upheld several times in court cases. But something more alarming is happening with many of these interactions.
Oftentimes, the people recording these interactions aren’t being merely impartial observers to a situation, but inserting themselves into the situation itself, whether by acting like amateur lawyers in reciting the rights of the citizens or by verbally assaulting the officers. Thanks to a recent ruling by the Washington Supreme Court, these verbal shots taken at officers are perfectly legal.
On Thursday, the Washington Supreme Court threw out the conviction of a juvenile, known in court records as simply “E.J.J.”, who screamed obscenities at officers and refused to obey their orders while they arrested an intoxicated woman from his house. The officers arrested E.J.J. on charges of obstruction, but the court has ruled that the arrest violated E.J.J.’s First Amendment rights.
“While E.J.J’s words may have been disrespectful, discourteous and annoying, they are nonetheless constitutionally protected,” wrote Associate Chief Justice Charles Johnson wrote in the 42 page opinion. He continued, explaining that citizens have the right to “criticize how the police are handling a situation, [and] they cannot be concerned about risking a criminal conviction for obstruction.”
According to Oregon Live, the original incident began when police responded to a call regarding an out-of-control juvenile woman who was intoxicated. When they arrested her and began leading her from the house, E.J.J. claims he saw one of the officers take out a nightstick. This caused E.J.J. to stand in a doorway and yell at the officers, instructing them to put the nightstick away and not use it on the woman.
Police asked E.J.J. to get back into the house and close the door, but E.J.J. did not comply. Instead, he began hurling insults and profanity at the officers. According to the court’s written opinion, one of the officers then warned E.J.J that he could be arrested for obstruction if he did not comply with their requests. E.J.J. continued standing in the doorway and ignoring their request while calling the officers abusive names. The officers then arrested E.J.J. and charged him with obstructing a law enforcement officer.
Chief Justice Barbara Madsen agreed with the ruling, but also interjected her opinion that the conviction should have been dismissed on different grounds. Madsen argued that race may have played a role in the decision to arrest E.J.J., claiming that obstruction charges are “used disproportionately to arrest people of color.”
As for the failure to comply with the officer’s instructions to close the door, the court wrote “E.J.J. had every right to stand on his own property, provided he did not physically interfere with police.” Since E.J.J. did not physically stand in the way of the officers, his refusal to leave the scene and close the door at the officer’s request did not, according to the judgement, constitute obstruction. Instead, the court ruled that his abusive language and refusal to comply simply “caused a minor delay [and] is of no import.”
Madsen also suggested, according to KOMOnews.com, that the court should add a law to the books requiring obstruction charges to be dropped if an officer’s conduct escalates the situation. “It is apparent that in this case the arresting officer unnecessarily escalated the situation when E.J.J refused to close the door. At that point it appears that E.J.J and the officer were involved in a contest of wills, and the officer won because he had the power of arrest.”
The ruling has to make one wonder if Madsen’s suggestion could lead to a slippery slope of suspects not complying with officers’ demands, then skating on charges due to a newly-created loophole. One thing is for certain though: Police officers are now legally required to put up with abusive, profanity-laced language being hurled at them as they attempt to perform their jobs.