Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Abuse of "Disorderly Conduct"

Via Distributed Republic, a post at AntiWar.com about the abuse of police discretion:

One such problem is the ever increasing number of pretexts on which the authorities can interrogate, search, assault, and arrest citizens. The authority figure, equipped with endless excuses to initiate an interaction with the citizen, from an expired tag to a false burglar alarm to an alleged whiff of what might be a controlled substance, uses his or her superior knowledge of legal arcana to find some way to put the citizen behind bars. For instance, what struck me when reading the policeman’s account of the Gates incident was a small detail: the repeated use of the term “tumultuous.” It appears three times in the brief report in descriptions of Gates’ behavior. Why was the cop fixated on this SAT word?

Turns out, it appears in the Massachusetts statute defining disorderly conduct. The cop goaded the agitated Gates into stepping outside of his house (he made sure to give a reason for this in the report – poor acoustics in Gates’ kitchen!) to create the grounds for an arrest. The cop already knew the specific – though vague and debatable – adjective he should use in his report to make the charge sound incontestable to the lawnorder crowd.

This makes me think back to an experience during the Abortion Wars of the 1980s. An Operation Rescue affiliate had become active in the large metropolitan area where I was in college, and while I had no taste for confrontation, let alone trespassing charges, I nonetheless lent my presence in their support.

Both the city and state political structure were monolithically Democrat back then, and the police, to the applause of the local media, had been turned loose on pro-life sit-ins, using choke-holds to drag non-violent protesters off to the wagons. Even when they weren't trespassing, the police refused to separate or otherwise protect pro-lifers from physically aggressive counter-demonstrators. This was the context in which the following occurred.

During one protest, when there was no sit-in or counter-demonstration -- indeed, the clinic hadn't even opened that day -- I got bored listening to the Hail Mary* and wandered around taking pictures. Some distance from the protest, a knot of police officers were having a conversation. From the other side of the street, I took, or started to take, their picture.

"Put that camera away!" barked one of the officers.

Wait a second, I thought. Is it against the law to take your picture? I assume I have some kind of first amendment right to take pictures in public. But I'm not a lawyer, so who knows? And I'm not a member of the press, so even if I do have the right, I don't have lawyers on retainer ready to defend that right. So . . . I did like I was told.

It's a good thing I did. It turns out that neither having the right to take pictures, nor even being a member of the MSM, would have saved me. Police routinely arrest people who attempt to photograph or film their activities. Of course, charges aren't always filed, and the actual charge is never "photographing police", which is not against the law. The charge becomes "disorderly conduct," which in practice means basically whatever behavior the cops don't like.

* In retrospect, the Abortion Wars were a Godsend for interfaith relations and religious tolerance. Prior to these demonstrations, I "knew" only bad things about Catholics and Catholicism. And yet here we were, evangelical Protestants and Catholics, standing arm in arm for a cause about which we were all passionate, and meanwhile learning each others' liturgy. The Catholics presumably picked up some sweet hymns, and I can still recite the "Hail Mary". (Though, of course, I don't, what with it being idolatrous and all).


Ferdinand Bardamu said...

I was walking by a park in Albany, New York a year ago when I saw two cops trotting by on horseback. You don't see that every day, so I pulled out my cameraphone to take a picture. One of them saw me and yelled, "Put that phone away or I'll have you arrested!" The APD is known for corruption and flagrant violations of the law, so I complied, not wanting to be on the receiving end of a beatdown. It doesn't surprise me to see that other police forces across the country are doing this sort of thing.

"Prior to these demonstrations, I "knew" only bad things about Catholics and Catholicism."

Hopefully you didn't junk those "bad things" - a lot of them are true. We Papists DO rut like rabbits, for instance - ask the hundreds of Bardamus crawling across upstate New York, New Jersey, and south Florida.

Justin said...

Holy Mary Mother of God, whats wrong with that? ;-)