By John V. Berry, Esq., www.berrylegal.com
In a decision by the State of Washington Supreme Court, issued on June 25, 2015, the court found that the offensive speech of an arrestee was protected speech. The incident arose in the context of an arrest of an intoxicated resident of a house. Police arrived and attempted to calm the individual down. While this was ongoing, another resident of the house told officers not to use a nightstick on the other individual who happened to be his sister. The individual was directed away from the scene, became irate and began yelling profanities and calling the officers abusive names.
COURT'S RULING ON VERBAL ABUSE
Eventually, the individual was told that he was engaging in obstruction and then was arrested for the charge of obstruction of a law enforcement officer. The court, in its ruling, found that individual arrested had the right to criticize how police were handling an incident. The court held that "obstruction statutes may not be used to limit citizens' rights to express verbal criticism, even abusive criticism, at police officers." The Washington Supreme Court cited the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in City of Houston v. Hill, 482 U.S. 451, 454 (1987) for this position.
The court also found that the arrestee had the right to use profanity and criticism towards officers so long as the individual did not physically interfere with the officer. Despite the fact that the ruling only applies in the State of Washington it is important for law enforcement officers to be aware of these potential issues should this ruling be adopted by other jurisdictions. It can be very difficult for police officers to anticipate safety issues that may arise while at the same time dealing with difficult individuals engaging in verbal abuse. The key, for at least this ruling, is that the individual did not physically interfere with the officer.
The case of Washington v. E.J.J., Case No. 88694-6 (Wash. 2015) is attached through this link.
It is important to understand freedom of speech issues as a law enforcement officer and for an officer to take steps to protect themselves. Our law firm advises and represents law enforcement officers in disciplinary and civil matters. We can be contacted at Berrylegal.com or by telephone at (703) 668-0070. The Firm's Facebook page can be found here Berry & Berry Facebook Page.