Stop and Stare

Stop and Stare:  “Mere Presence” at the Scene of an Arrest is Not Interference with that Arrest

At any moment in New York, someone is probably getting arrested.  Even though New Yorkers try to ignore the bizarre happenings that flood the streets, sometimes even the most steadied New Yorker stops to stare at someone getting arrested.

Surges of citizens have become intensely focused on watching the actions of police officers.  More people are stopping and watching, videotaping, and bearing witness, because of the widespread criticism of police conduct.  With pressure to reform police behavior and the public’s awareness of the potential for brutality, it is almost certain that even in a place as indifferent as New York, people will stop and intently watch an arrest take place, videotape, and inevitably hold the officers’ accountable.

This focus on police officers has resulted in reform and also defensiveness.  The two sides being: police officers should be more firmly controlled and regulated, the other being that the police officers have a job to do and cannot do it with certain parameters in place.  One could then argue that the public involvement and increased interest in daily police-citizen interaction impairs the integrity of general police investigation.  Essentially, because people have become incensed and motived by confirmed police brutality, it is more likely that people will watch how police officers conduct investigations and subsequent arrests, therefore making those interactions (crowds forming during an arrest) inherently more tense.  Thus, making police officers want to remove onlookers.

Is it illegal to watch someone else getting arrested?  Everyone has done the slow drive passed a car pulled over on the side of the road, but what are the prohibitions of standing in a crowd of people watching someone get arrested?

Recently, a Bronx man was and charged with resisting arrest, second-degree obstructing governmental administration and disorderly conduct, while standing amongst a crowd of on-lookers, watching an unrelated arrest.  The defendant was standing watching an unrelated arrest, when a non-uniformed police officer approached him and told him to leave.  The defendant refused and took a stance (squared his body to the officer’s) as if he were going to fight the non-uniformed officer.  A Bronx Judge threw out the charges against the defendant stating, “mere presence at the scene of an arrest does not make one guilty of interfering with that arrest.”[1] But why? These facts would appear fairly characteristic, a man refusing to do what the police ask in a big crowd, and acting aggressive.

The factual allegations in the accusatory instrument sworn to by the deponent, PO Louis

Obstructing Governmental Administration

Obstructing governmental administration is when a person acts intentionally to obstruct or prevent the administration of law or when a police officer is trying to do their job someone does something to prevent the police officer from accomplishing that. The law states that the obstruction is “by means of intimidation, physical force or interference, or by means of any independently unlawful act.” [2] The court evaluated the defendant’s conduct, standing near the arrest, and refusing the order of the non-uniformed police officer.  The defendant was not interfering with the efforts to make the arrest of the individual, and the court determined that this did not constitute obstruction or interference.

The important take-away is that in order to be guilty of obstructing governmental administration; a person has to intend to prevent the administration of justice.  In this case, the defendant did not know that the non-uniformed police officer was in fact a police officer, and the non-uniformed police officer was not assisting with the arrest nor was he intending to, therefore the defendant’s conduct (refusing to leave and squaring his body toward the non-uniformed officer) was not an obstruction of governmental administration.   The governmental administration, the order to leave, was not apparent to the defendant as having come from a police officer.   Because the police officer was not in uniform and did not make his occupation known to the defendant, the defendant could not have known nor intended to prevent an officer from doing his job.

Resisting Arrest and Disorderly Conduct

The vital aspect of a person being guilty of resisting arrest, is an underlying lawful arrest.  If the purpose for the initial arrest is not lawful, a person cannot be found guilty of resisting arrest. [3]

A person is guilty of disorderly conduct when “with intent to cause public inconvenience, annoyance or alarm, or recklessly creating a risk thereof: He congregates with other persons in a public place and refuses to comply with a lawful order of the police to disperse ” [4] The prosecutor must prove that the accused meant to congregate in such a manner and refused to leave when a police office ordered the congregation to disperse.

The defendant did not know the non-uniformed police officer was a police officer, and therefore cannot be found guilty of disorderly conduct.  The defendant refused to leave the crowd of people, but there was no indication to the defendant that he was being told to leave by a police officer, it appeared as though a random citizen was making this order.

No Disorderly Conduct, No Obstructing Governmental Administration; No Resisting Arrest.

In summation, a person merely standing watching another person being arrested is not obstructing governmental administration. There has to be more action than just standing around watching. Furthermore, a person who refuses to leave an area around an unrelated arrest of another person, is not resisting arrest when an unidentifiable police officer orders the person to leave.  Police officers may not ask onlookers to leave the scene of an arrest for just standing and watching.

Disclaimer:  The Blanch Law Firm does not endorse or encourage individuals to assess the effects of standing or remaining present at the scene of an arrest.

[1] People v Wilson, 2015 NY Slip Op 51687(U), 1 [Crim Ct Nov. 10, 2015]

[2] PL § 195.05

[3] PL § 205.30

[4] PL § 240.20[6]

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