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Could Professor Gates have been convicted of disorderly conduct?

July 23rd, 2009

So. Gatesgate.1

For as eminently debatable as this week’s arrest of Professor Henry Louis Gates and its aftermath may be for people who are properly qualified to discuss the state of race relations in America, I am not one of those people.2 But I have been excited to see how much attention this story has brought to the Commonwealth’s colonial-era disorderly conduct statute, and this is as good a time as any for us to review once again why its continued existence is nothing but an embarassment to us all.

Professor Gates, as we all know by now, was arrested for disorderly conduct on his own front porch in Cambridge last week. Police had been called by a concerned citizen who reported a burglary while watching Gates and his driver attempting to strongarm a door to which Gates had misplaced his keys after a trip to China. The police arrived and established Gates’s identity with a photo ID which included the address in which they were standing.

According to the police report, Gates then became upset and expressed his opinions regarding the injustice of the situation, the Cambridge Police Department, and the treatment of African-American men by police in the United States, at which point he was cuffed and arrested for disorderly conduct as a small crowd gathered. The charge was subsequently killed several days later, together with the usual “not our best moment, not his best moment” statement from the Cambridge PD.

Letting this go was the right move for all concerned, obviously. But what if the case had gone forward?

As I have previously discussed as thoroughly as I cared to, the Commonwealth’s disorderly conduct statute is a facially unconstitutional 400-year-old mess that has been preserved only through willful acts of judicial alchemy. Unfortunately, its many vagaries and moving parts have made it a reliable standby in the collective arsenal of law enforcement officers throughout the Commonwealth and, right or wrong, it is all too common to see this charge brought after an arrest in which the defendant has forgone his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent in favor of his First Amendment right to express his opinion about the situation.

The defense’s first strategy would almost certainly have been to move to dismiss the charge. Looking at only one of this crime’s many possible elements, it is highly unlikely that Gates’s alleged conduct (even assuming that it was just as obnoxious as reported) caused or created a risk of “public inconvenience or alarm.” According to the police report, his confrontation with police began in his own kitchen after he had provided them with evidence of his identity; he was then was invited to step out and continue the discussion on his own front porch. Although the police report alleges that a small crowd was gathering at this point, the fact remains that the officers had no reason to be there once they had established that Gates had not just burgled the place, and it seems highly unlikely that that this gracefully-aging gentleman with a cane, a bronchial infection, 12 hours of jet lag, and a Harvard ID was otherwise likely to pose any risk of “public inconvenience or alarm.”3

The “public” element aside, however, there is the basic issue of a citizen’s right to vocally disagree with the police. While most reasonable people can agree that it’s probably best to keep calm in the face of possible arrest, it is also understandable that, as the U.S. Supreme Court has previously held, your average law-abiding citizen is going to get a little worked up if he feels that he is being treated like a criminal for no good reason. Despite the best efforts of the police to work the magic words “tumultuous” and “served no legitimate purpose” into the affidavit in support of the criminal complaint [page 4], Gates’s conduct closely resembles that of defendants in at least two other Massachusetts appellate cases4 in which disorderly conduct convictions have been reversed:

In Commonwealth v. Lopiano, 60 Mass. App. Ct. 723 (2004), police had just witnessed the defendant assaulting his girlfriend before they moved in to arrest him; he then began flailing his arms and yelling loudly about his civil rights and such. In reversing his conviction for disorderly conduct, the Appeals Court noted that his behavior was not “extreme” or otherwise threatening, and was not therefore statutorily “tumultuous.”

Commonwealth v. Zettel, 46 Mass. App. Ct. 471 (1999), my personal favorite in this line of cases, held that a difference of opinion with a police officer is a “legitimate purpose” that may provide a proper defense against a charge of disorderly conduct. Although the defendant in Zettel had actually kicked a cop in the shins following an argument with him over her right to a parking spot in Fall River, the court held that her conduct arose from a “legitimate purpose” for causing a scene. But this is consistent: Massachusetts and other jurisdictions have found “legitimate purpose” for causes as diverse as protecting your water supply and attempting to save your marriage, so why not challenging a police officer who is expressing an intent to arrest you?

For as much fun as this little Gedankenexperiment may be, we are still talking about a criminal offense which carries up to six months of committed time. Disorderly conduct charges are regularly and routinely brought against defendants of every description around the Commonwealth—most of whom do not have Al Sharpton on speed-dial—under nearly identical circumstances. Let’s hope that all of this publicity will finally shame the legislature into putting G.L.c. 272 Sec. 53 out of its misery.

  1. Note: Nobody should ever call this incident “Gatesgate,” for any reason. []
  2. For what it’s worth, I believe that the heartless and disturbingly insensitive prosecution of UMass Amherst student Jason Vassell is a far better example of the point that Gates and his supporters have been trying to make… it was really only the fact that it happened in Western Massachusetts that has kept it out of the conversation. []
  3. This is generally defined as “affecting or likely to affect persons in a place to which the public or a substantial group has access.” Commonwealth v. Molligi, 70 Mass. App. Ct. 108 (2007). So maybe a few people could hear him from the sidewalk—but so what? I just don’t see it. “Public” really should mean “public.” As a policy matter, this statute is supposed to preserve public order, not the sensibilities of police officers. []
  4. There are many more, but these are the two that immediately came to mind when I read the Gates police report []

disorderly conduct, massachusetts, stupid laws

HEY YOU GUUUUUYS!!!!!!!

July 2nd, 2009

So you’ve been caught stealing from The Electric Company.1  Your trial and conviction were otherwise unremarkable, and you’re short on good issues for appeal. Might as well try this:

The defendant lastly contends that the electricity and the gas sold by NSTAR do not constitute “property”…

Commonwealth v. Catalano, No. 08-P-1340 (July 1, 2009)

This is, of course, yet another appellate argument that sounds totally crazy when you say it out loud. Sure, the appellant is saying, maybe the electric company generates, manages, and distributes electricity, but that doesn’t mean that they own it! As The Rascals once never sang: All the world over, so easy to see… Currents of electrically charged particles passing by means of conductors from one body to another just got to be free!

Although perhaps morally questionable, this position is actually legally defensible. On first read, the definition of “property” outlined in the larceny statute really doesn’t seem to include electricity, or anything that resembles electricity.2 While it is otherwise remarkably thorough—e.g., ”data while in transit,” “a beast or a bird which is ordinarily kept in confinement”—the statute makes no mention of household utilities as property subject to larceny.

Of course, the court also doesn’t want to be responsible for converting the Commonwealth’s entire electric grid into some kind of wacky Napster-style free-for-all. So, soldering iron in hand, the panel expertly grafts public utilities into the larceny statute’s “personal chattel” provision.

Chattel” is, of course, one of the grande ensemble of Frenchified lawyerin’ words which came to dominate English common law after the  Norman Conquest. It’s really just a fancy way to say “movable property,” and is best defined as pretty much anything that could logically complete the phrase: “Hey, that guy just stole my _________!” As the Appeals Court is quick to note, gas has been viewed as a chattel subject to larceny in the Commonwealth since at least 1853. But no one had ever bothered to ask about electricity before now.

Bereft of any relevant Massachusetts caselaw, the court reluctantly resorts to actual science. After (presumably) dispatching a law clerk for a field trip to the Museum of Science’s Van de Graaf generator exhibit, the Court reports back that:

…electricity, like gas, also may be stored and conveyed. Storage is possible in a capacitor, and may be transmitted through wires.

Well, that and the U.S. Supreme Court already found that there is a property interest in electricity 70 years ago, as have several other states. So while this “would have been a novel question one hundred years ago,” and “the defendant is correct that this precise issue has never been addressed in Massachusetts”:

…it is a well-established legal principle that electricity and gas are personal property that may be the subject of larceny.

  1. Better them than 3-2-1 Contact, which no doubt would unleash the unchecked extralegal vigilantism of  The Bloodhound Gang. []
  2. ”The term “property”, as used in the section, shall include money, personal chattels, a bank note, bond, promissory note, bill of exchange or other bill, order or certificate, a book of accounts for or concerning money or goods due or to become due or to be delivered, a deed or writing containing a conveyance of land, any valuable contract in force, a receipt, release or defeasance, a writ, process, certificate of title or duplicate certificate issued under chapter one hundred and eighty-five, a public record, anything which is of the realty or is annexed thereto, a security deposit received pursuant to section fifteen B of chapter one hundred and eighty-six, electronically processed or stored data, either tangible or intangible, data while in transit, telecommunications services, and any domesticated animal, including dogs, or a beast or bird which is ordinarily kept in confinement.” G.L. c. 266, § 30(2 []

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