|Flickr/ photographer padawan *(xava du)|
Consider “obstruction of justice.” The typical definition as it relates to police officers is “the interference with an officer who is discharging his duty.” Depending on the state, obstruction can include providing a false name, the interception of police radio communication to avoid detection, eluding a police officer, and refusing to assist an officer or to comply with a command.
In reality, obstruction charges have been laid for arguing with a policeman or asking him questions, gesturing in almost any manner, invoking the Constitution, refusing to produce I.D., and recording a police officer even when it is legal to do so.
The case of John Kurtz
On January 1, 2011, Kurtz was in downtown Orlando when he observed police officer Adam Gruler arresting a man on a domestic-violence charge. The arrest involved “the use of tasers, a violent take-down and the pepper spraying of a man already subdued and in handcuffs.” Kurtz announced himself, stood to one side, and began recording the incident. Florida law allows in-person recordings in public places where there is no expectation of privacy; it further allows the recording of police officers as long as it does not obstruct the enforcement of law. Nevertheless, Gruler demanded Kurtz cease recording. When Kurtz informed Gruler that he “knew his rights,” the officer threw Kurtz to the ground and arrested him as well.
Kurtz was charged with three offenses: obstruction of a law-enforcement officer; battery on a law-enforcement officer; and resisting arrest without violence. The latter charge can refer to any nonviolent “resistance” to arrest, from running the other way to asking, “What am I charged with?” Resisting arrest without violence is another increasingly popular intimidation tactic used by many police departments. Of the Orange County, Florida, police department that conducted the Kurtz arrest, local news channel WFTV reported as early as 2006,
Defense attorney David Bigney says he rarely sees a case now where resisting isn’t a charge. “All these people want is to know why, what’s going on here, but the officer decides I’m just going to arrest you,” said Bigney. And often it’s the only charge. In more than 25-percent of the 4000-plus cases Eyewitness News tracked, resisting was the only charge. That begs the question: if there’s no arrest for something else how could they be resisting arrest?
Thus, on June 30, a jury found Kurtz not guilty of battery on a law-enforcement officer but guilty of resisting arrest without violence. (The obstruction charge had been dropped.) The judge imposed the stiffest penalty possible upon the unrepentant Kurtz: 30 days in jail (less 7 days served), a one-year probation, and a 12-month restraining order to stay at least 100 feet from police officers engaged in duty. Typically, resisting arrest without violence receives a slap on the wrist; a sentence such as Kurtz’s is almost unheard of. Moreover, Kurtz commented, “In the multiple plea deals I was offered, jail time was never mentioned, in fact my last plea offer didn’t even include probation and this is when I was charged with a felony, as well as resisting arrest without violence.”
Punished for his activism
The stiff sentence had been foreshadowed by the judge’s attitude in court, which Kurtz — an activist for jury nullification — described as “statist bull-crap.” For example, the judge refused to allow disciplinary reports or other evidence of Gruler’s extensive history of police misconduct and brutality.
In 2006, the Orlando Sentinel reported, “Adam Gruler is a hunter. That’s one of the nicknames given inside the Orlando Police Department to the young, aggressive cops…. Their job: create a “no-tolerance zone” for crime of all kinds…. He also has become one of the department’s top Taser users….” Gruler has had dozens of complaints lodged against him for behavior similar to that captured in a YouTube of 2007 unlawful arrest by Gruler of another man who had been legally recorded him.
Currently, Kurtz is raising funds to appeal his conviction. The main reason he cites for the appeal is the 100-foot restriction on approaching police officers, which means “effectively ending my participation in Orlando Copwatch.” He is attempting to involve the American Civil Liberties Union on constitutional grounds. A CopWatch press release explains,
Kurtz sights [sic] that the prosecution during closing arguments and judge during sentencing, say that when Kurtz approached the scene with his camera and told the officers “calm down, I am filming you” that act by itself was interfering, obstructing or opposing a police officer, and thus, the form of resisting arrest without violence. Kurtz insists that this form of free speech is absolutely protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution…. This is specifically upheld by the US Supreme Court in case Houston vs. Hill, 1987, and Florida Supreme Court Case, Florida vs. Saunders, 1976, as well as other case law. These rulings have never been overturned.
Time after time, when punitive arrests or punishments for obstruction or resisting arrest have been appealed, the appellant has won. And, yet, the police continue as though there were no higher authority than themselves. As a lawyer specialized in obstructing justice has stated,
This broadly written law can be the subject of abuse by law enforcement. Even though the courts have made it clear that mere verbal criticism is not enough, police and municipal prosecutors still charge citizens with this offense for minor verbal acts. In cases of police brutality, this charge will often be filed in the hope that a citizen will take a quick plea, eliminating any ability to get compensation later.
In a video making a stir on You Tube, an Arkansas man looks on in horror as officers handcuff an innocuous looking woman, and then conduct a TSA-style search of her breasts and other body parts before releasing her. The cameraman filming police across the street from his garage yells “Nazis,” continuing to warn the officers that they were violating the 4th Amendment.