We the People Can Tell the Police to Get the Hell Off of Our Lawn!

2009 July 29

by Michael Parmele

OK, so I need to weigh in on the illegal arrest of Dr. Gates (yes, yes, I understand that I am now the last person in the country to weigh in on this matter) and the goings on at his house in Massachusetts.  Where I think that my take on this situation differs from the rest of the country is: THIS CASE HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH RACE!

I would like to lay out the facts, as I understand them, for the purpose of this discussion.

-          Dr. Gates arrived at his house and his entry, for whatever reason, was hindered due to mechanical difficulty.

-          One or more neighbors witnessed two men (Dr. Gates and his driver) attempting to open the door to Dr. Gates’ home, saw them open it, and could not be certain that they had not forced the door open.

-          One of these individuals called the police department to report that they felt something might be amiss.

-          A police officer was dispatched to investigate this report.

-          Upon arrival, the officer spoke with the reporting witness and viewed Dr. Gates inside his home through windows in his front door.

-          The officer made contact with Dr. Gates in an attempt to ascertain his identity.

-          Dr. Gates was belligerent with the officer and expressed his anger to the officer, verbally, within his home.

-          The officer was provided with identification sufficient to the officer’s mind that this man was, indeed, a lawful resident of the residence and began to leave.

-          Dr. Gates followed the officer as he left the residence and continued expressing his anger, verbally, to the officer from the porch of his residence.

-          The officer placed Dr. Gates under arrest for “Disorderly Conduct, after being observed exhibiting loud and tumultuous behavior, in a public place…”

These are the facts of the case, as taken from the arresting officer’s incident report.  Now, let us go through these facts and examine when, where, and why the officer violated Dr. Gates rights as protected in the Constitution of the United Sates as enumerated through legal precedent.  From fact one to fact six there is absolutely nothing improper with the conduct of the neighbors or police department or any of its officers.  They were acting off of the information they were given, responding to a possible crime in progress: they had a reasonable suspicion that a crime was in progress, so they investigated that suspicion.

Upon determining, however, that the individual inside the residence was, in fact, a lawful resident, the suspicion was satisfied and there was no further need for police action with regard to this event.  There is nothing illegal about yelling at a police officer, expressing anger at a police officer, or talking about a police officer’s “mama.”  Dr. Gates complied with the request of the officer to provide identification and made no threats of physical violence toward the officer, or anyone else, in the officer’s hearing.

The officer himself states in his report that he had determined that the individual with whom he was dealing was a lawful resident of the address and was in the process of leaving the house as Dr. Gates continued expressing his anger.  The officer exited the house and was followed by Dr. Gates who left the house, but not the porch.

It is this instant, the moment at which the officer turned around once he had exited the home, which began the abuse of his authority and resulted in the illegal arrest of Dr. Gates.  Had the officer simply continued on his way, there would have been no abuse of authority.

The officer did not continue to leave this lawful resident to his lawful activity on his private property.  Dr. Gates’, as all citizens, has every right to express his anger at the conduct of the police department, his dislike for the department or particular officers, and is constitutionally protected should he desire to make an ass of himself on his property.  He has absolutely no obligation to be deferential to police, once his compliance has satisfied the reasonable suspicion which generated the contact with police in the first place.

The police report filed by the responding officer indicated that Dr. Gates engaged in “loud and tumultuous behavior in a public place.”  This fact is contradicted later in the police report when the officer indicated that Dr. Gates did not leave the front porch of his home.  Dr. Gates was on private property while expressing his anger toward the officer and, therefore, could not have been causing a disturbance in “a public place.”

This situation has nothing to do with race.  It does not matter if the officer is racist and it does not matter if Dr. Gates is racist either.  What this situation demonstrates is an assumption that police officers must always be deferred to, must always be obeyed, and exercise a sacrosanct authority which is patently false!  We, as citizens, have no obligation to defer to police officers unless certain criteria are met; namely, reasonable suspicion.  A police officer must be able to articulate his/her suspicion in order to conduct an investigation and, if necessary, detain individuals in relation to that investigation.  Once an investigation satisfies the suspicion held by the officer (in this case, Dr. Gates’ offer of proof that he was a lawful resident), the investigation is over and the contact between the police officer and the private citizen should come to a close, with no further detention or limits on private citizens or their rights.

The First Amendment protects Dr. Gates’ right to express his opinion about the Cambridge Police Department and the expression of that opinion, ON PRIVATE PROPERTY, cannot be suppressed by the government or its representative.

As a caveat to the above article, I am not a lawyer, nor do I hold a graduate degree in law.  I do, however, hold a bachelor’s degree with concentrations in Criminal Justice and Process and have worked for both a county prosecutor’s office and premier criminal defense firm.  I fully recognize that I may be “taken to task” by the myriad barristers with whom I partner on this site regarding “the way things work,” or “how things happen in real life.”  And to those who say that, “in the real world” citizens have to obey or be cowed by police officers in any situation, I say that cop better get off my lawn!

4 Responses leave one →
  1. July 29, 2009

    Nice…thank God for all of us that being or acting like an asshole in private is Constitutionally protected!

  2. Charles Burns permalink
    August 14, 2009

    Thanks for your perspective. I have struggled with what I thought about this situation and you really clarified it for me.

    Because the media, and then the President, pounced all over the “racist” argument, it obscured for me…and I think many people…the real argument. You are correct, once Prof. Gates established his identity the case was over. As much as his private behavior may have been over the top, it was his property and he has the right to express his disdain for the police.

    Having had a few run-ins with police in my own life, in situations where they have “flexed their muscles” out of a sense of entitlement, I can identify with Prof. Gates frustration, even though in this particular situation, race was clearly not a factor.

  3. Sebastian Melmouth permalink
    August 16, 2009

    “The freedom of individuals verbally to oppose or challenge police action without thereby risking arrest is one of the principal characteristics by which we distinguish a free nation from a police state.” Houston v. Hill, 482 U.S. 451, 462-463 (1987).

  4. Sunshine permalink
    December 8, 2013

    Thx! I was arrested over this night before last! Most helpful!

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