Monday, November 30, 2015

A primer on obstructing governmental administration

This plaintiff went to trial on a false arrest claim. He handled the trial and this appeal pro se. His position at trial was that the police lacked probable cause to arrest him for obstructing governmental administration. He lost the trial. But he gets a second trial because the judge did not properly charge the jury on the elements of the obstructing charge.

The case is Ozoukwu v. City of New York, decided on November 5. The police said they approached plaintiff in a park, who was sitting on the bench eating Jell-O. The park rules said you cannot enter the park without a child or a stroller. When the police asked plaintiff if he had any children with him, he refused to answer. One of the officers testified that, "to get his attention, I took his Jell-O and I threw it out." (You read that correctly). The police said plaintiff began yelling at them, so he was charged with disorderly conduct and obstructing.

At trial, the jury during deliberations asked the judge if you can be guilty of obstructing if you refuse to speak to a police officer. The judge told the jury that refusal to answer the questions, without more, is not obstructing governmental administration, but "whether refusal to acknowledge or respond to police questions is considered obstruction of governmental administration depends on the totality of the circumstances as you find them."

Plaintiff gets a new trial on his false arrest claim because this jury charge was wrong and could have affected the outcome of the trial. The Court of Appeals (Winter, Pooler and Sack) tells us more than we ever wanted to know about what makes up an obstruction charge. And this will probably be the go-to case on false arrest cases arising from obstructing arrests. After noting that cases in New York say that obstruction arrests require proof that the defendant interfered with police activity through either intimidation, physical force or violence or any independently unlawful act, the Court holds as follows:

Under New York law, it is clearly established that Uzoukwu’s constitutionally protected silence could not constitute any element of the crime of obstructing governmental administration, even if such silence interfered with the officers’ attempt to investigate whether Uzoukwu was violating park rules. Therefore, the district court should have simply answered "no.”
The basis for this ruling is that you have the right to remain silent. Your silence cannot form the basis of an obstructing charge. You can even walk or run away if the police question you without fear of an obstructing charge. "For this reason, refusal to answer police questions ... cannot satisfy the 'independently unlawful act' prong." Relatedly, "obstruction of governmental administration cannot rest upon refusal to provide identification."

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