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.
- Note: Nobody should ever call this incident “Gatesgate,” for any reason. [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- There are many more, but these are the two that immediately came to mind when I read the Gates police report [↩]