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Verdicts in Dearborn [Updated]

An almost-complete victory in criminal court for the Acts 17 missionaries: All were acquitted of all charges except for the one person most removed from the whole situation, Negeen Mayel, who was found guilty of "failure to obey the lawful order of a police officer"--the order in question apparently being to stop videotaping. Negeen was sentenced to the one night she already served in jail, and the judge told the missionaries, "You are welcome in Dearborn." (Ahem. Looks like it, doesn't it?)

The Thomas More Law Center is appealing the verdict in the one charge against Negeen. I assume that appeal will turn on the interpretation and application of the law in question.

My concern at this point is lest things become too narrowly focused on that issue and that appeal. In my non-lawyer's opinion, a suit should be filed now based on the obvious conspiracy of the police to engage in false arrest. The arbitrary command to Negeen to stop videotaping was part of the overall situation in which the police intended to arrest the other missionaries on charges based on fraudulent testimony.

Moreover, the witness Roger Williams should also be sued for his defamation against the Acts 17 missionaries which started this entire scenario.

More on laws against "failure to obey an officer" below the fold.

I've been doing some Google research on this "failure to obey an officer's order." I'm working on getting the actual text of the statute in Dearborn, but I would imagine it's similar to other statutes in other municipalities. What I've gleaned is this: Such statutes often are written in a way that they cannot possibly be meant to apply, making it sound as though a police officer can literally tell you to do anything that is not in itself illegal, and you are legally obligated to obey. Taken literally this could mean that a policeman could walk up to a random, innocent citizen on the street and order him to stand on his head, to go somewhere completely different from his intended destination, to do twenty jumping jacks, or whatever tom-fool thing the officer chose to make up, and the citizen could be arrested and convicted if he refused to comply. So such statutes look like an open invitation to policemen to engage in plain harassment of otherwise innocent citizens. In practice, I gather the idea is supposed to be that the open-ended wording is merely meant to accommodate an otherwise un-listable set of reasonable and necessary orders a policeman might give in various real-life situations. Examples I have seen on law enforcement message boards include

--telling people to move along when they are endangering themselves and the police by watching the arrest of a potentially dangerous criminal,

--telling someone that he cannot reenter his burning house to save a pet.

One can also imagine (this is my example) a situation in which officers are staking out a drop point, and some innocent citizen picks up "the suitcase" and has to be told to put it down.

It's understandable that policemen want the freedom to ad lib in such situations. But there needs to be some provision for preventing frivolous use of the statute. In particular, it needs to be made clear that policemen cannot simply tell you to stop videotaping so that they can then arrest you or your friends without a record either of their behavior or of your innocence of other made-up charges. I gather that in practice the filter for frivolous or unreasonable demands is supposed to be a judge's discretion to throw out charges. But that can't be enough in itself, because if a judge does not throw out a charge for a failure to obey an unreasonable order, the jury may believe (as I suspect they were led to believe in Negeen's case) that they must convict if the accused person did not hasten to obey some police order, regardless of whether the officer's order was unreasonable or arbitrary.

What this could mean is that in future, the police in Dearborn can simply order Acts 17 or anyone else to stop videotaping (on pain of conviction for "failure to obey") and then arrest them later, claiming that they were starting a riot, etc., without video evidence to show their innocence. It is quite clear that without the video evidence in this case from the remaining cameras that were not shut down until the last minute, that is probably exactly what would have happened to all the missionaries.

It seems to me very important that a) this interpretation of the "failure to obey" law not be allowed to stand and b) the lawyers for Acts 17 not allow everything to turn on that point alone without making sure that there is some reckoning in the form of lawsuits for the larger range of legal violations that took place here. The acquittal of the missionaries on all other charges (breach of the peace) should strengthen their hand in bringing these suits.

Update: David Wood quotes the relevant law:

Any individual who is given direction or order by hand, voice, emergency light, siren, or other visual or audible signal by a police officer acting in the lawful performance of his duty, and who willfully disobeys and/or disregards that direction or order, is guilty of a misdemeanor.

Obviously, the appeal will turn on the application and interpretation of "lawful performance of his duty," which is preferable to merely requiring that he give a "lawful order." If the officer in question was not in any sense "performing his duty" by walking up to Negeen and ordering her to stop filming, that is obviously the relevant point. And as he had no good reason to order her to stop filming, that ought to be pretty cut and dried. David also makes the important point that Roger Williams's later discredited complaint did not originally even state that Negeen had done anything criminal but only that she was "videotaping within hearing distance" of his encounter with her friends, which is not a crime. Apparently the officer admitted under cross-questioning that he had no reason when he approached her to believe that Negeen had committed a crime. This is especially important as far as a judgement that he was engaging in the "lawful performance of his duty" in ordering an innocent person against whom no actual criminal complaint had been made to stop videotaping.

Comments (11)

Taken literally this could mean that a policeman could walk up to a random, innocent citizen on the street and order him to stand on his head, to go somewhere completely different from his intended destination, to do twenty jumping jacks, or whatever tom-fool thing the officer chose to make up, and the citizen could be arrested and convicted if he refused to comply.

No one is required to obey an unjust command. The law, in itself, cannot define what is just, as conscience and higher laws supervene. Classic example occurred in the very first Doogie Houser, MD episode. There was an accident and Doggie got out of the car to render assistance. A police office told him to back off. Doggie was within his rights to ignore him because a higher obligation commanded him to try to save the life. In fact, Doggie told the officer that HE should back down because he was interfering in a doctor performing his duty (which might have been a felony if the man died because of the interference of the officer).

On the other hand, when St. Peter and St. John were ordered to stop preaching, they ignored the order, as well. An unjust command is an unjust command. Granted, the police may exercise overwhelming force and the judge may be clueless, but, ultimately, a higher Court will overturn the case.

The Chicken

That being said, the missionaries should sue as a preventative and precedence for future missionaries should they need the legal rulings.

The Chicken

Thankfully, the Acts 17 case did not turn into an Acts 5 case. :-)

Are they going to appeal the verdict against Negeen?

Yep. They say they are, and I'm sure that they will. I hope they sue the police at the same time. It seems (though they're the lawyers) that if they could get a civil judgement against the police for violating the civil rights of the four missionaries that would strengthen the appeal of Negeen's verdict as well--that is, it would strengthen the conclusion that the policeman was not acting in pursuit of his "lawful duty" in telling her to turn off the camera.

If what you cited above is the whole statute, since it lacks a "reasonable person" standard, it needs to go. I can't remember where it was, but a woman was, I kid you not, arrested for "interfering" with a cop because she refused to stop watching a routine traffic stop from her front porch.

These statutes are tailor-made for adrenaline jocks with control issues.

Mike, I've now seen these statutes cited and discussed in a number of places, and as far as I can tell they _never_ have the word "reasonable" or any such qualifier in them. In fact, this is one of the _better_ of them, because it talks about the "lawful performance of his duty," and hopefully they can get some sort of idea out of that that he had to have a good reason for giving her the command, that he wasn't in the "lawful performance of his duty" if he told her to stop videotaping for no good reason. Most of these laws apparently talk instead about failure to obey the "lawful order" of a police officer, which makes it sound like they can order you to do anything that is in itself legal!

It seems to me like a real problem area of law, because there appear to be no consequences for unreasonable orders. In this case, it's obvious that he gave her the order for a _bad_ purpose--namely, that they didn't want a record of their arresting the men a bit later on. Yet so far from her getting an apology at the trial, David Wood records that she got a little lecture from the judge at the end, as to a five-year-old, on how you must _always obey the police_ no matter what.

I saw some policemen discussing similar types of laws on a message board (not apropos of this case, but just in general), and they were pretty frank about it. One commentator was trying to say, "But look, you can't just order people to do anything, even if the people are completely innocent," and the cops were really annoyed with him. One even said, "You may beat the rap, but you can't beat the trip," which was a very bullying thing to say. None of them expressed the slightest worry about getting in trouble for making frivolous demands and charges. One just said something like, "Well, a judge will notice after a while if a given cop is bringing in people with otherwise clean records just on the charge of failure to obey." Oh, _that's_ comforting! What about all the people he brings in _before_ the judge notices?

The ACLU has evidently told Rep. McMillin, who is taking a good interest in the case, that Michigan has a "model" videotaping law. _As far as I know_ (and I'll be happy to be corrected) all that this amounts to is that it's legal to videotape and record audio without permission of the person you're filming on the public streets in Michigan. Well, that's good, but it isn't enough here, because the police are obviously asserting the right to order you to stop even _legal_ activities. Which would be okay in some circumstances (if they had to order you to get out of the way of danger, for example), but not just across the board and for whatever reason. There need to be penalties--perhaps an express right to sue, for example, written into the law--if the police are found to have abused their authority to issue a frivolous or unreasonable command, and all the more so of course if they arrest you for not obeying it.

Moreover, the witness Roger Williams should also be sued for his defamation against the Acts 17 missionaries which started this entire scenario.

I haven't followed this case very closely, so I'm not sure in what context this fellow made defamatory statements or if he's a "witness" in a judicial sense or merely in a police-investigation sense. If the former, he's immune from suit for defamation: you can't sue someone for something said during a judicial proceeding (for reason that lawyers and witnesses who make truthful statements would otherwise be liable for defamation based on the caprice of the jury). If it's witness in the latter sense, there would probably be a claim for slander and abuse of process, if the limitations period hasn't run (usually one year for that kind of thing).

Titus, if I understand you correctly, you are saying that if a person commits perjury as a witness in a criminal case, and if the police and prosecutors are, for whatever reason, on his side and not inclined to prosecute him, he is immune from civil suit for his false testimony, is that correct?

What if he made slanderous statements to the police as a witness in a police investigation? Can you sue him for that portion of his behavior even without bringing in false statements he made on the stand, if he took the stand later in court?

None of them expressed the slightest worry about getting in trouble for making frivolous demands and charges.

That's because there are effectively no consequences unless the PD is unusually ethical or they targeted the wrong person.

What conservatives are generally blind to is that the police suffer from the same problem as the public schools: no competition, a sense of entitlement and us versus them. The only difference is that unlike a school teacher, they have tremendous authority to inflict harm on your body, property and liberty.

The only solution is to return to our founding where cops were simply full time practitioners of the same law enforcement authority every private citizen had.

A very related article: http://reason.com/archives/2010/09/27/misbehaving-federal-prosecutor

The level of prosecutorial misconduct in this country may actually exceed that by the police.

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