Disorderly Police Conduct
“[Disorderly Conduct] is probably the most abused statute in America,” says Eugene O’Donnell, a professor of law and police studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.
A few recent incidents, spanning several states and wildly different scenarios, coalesce together to focus attention on one particular charge: disorderly conduct. Police officers arrest more than 700,000 people on this charge each year in numerous situations. Many of these charges are dropped or dismissed. It is considered one of the most discretionary and least defined criminal charges in the country.
Disorderly conduct is typically defined with phrases like “tumultuous conduct,” “unreasonable noise”, or “disrupting a lawful assembly,” but is worded broadly enough to allow officers an extremely wide latitude of discretion.
Of course, the first contemporary incident that comes to mind is the arrest of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. at his own home. A neighbor called the police when she saw (the black man) Gates entering the home. The responding officer, Sergeant James Crowley, was met with hostility that escalated into him arresting Gates on disorderly conduct charges, even after it was clear that Gates was in fact the owner of the home he was entering.
President Obama later correctly (but unwisely) called the officer’s actions “stupid.”
Last week in Alabama, a mentally disabled deaf man was pepper sprayed and tasered repeatedly by police when he did not respond to their knocks on the door of the public bathroom he was using. After the man exited the bathroom and his disabilities were evident, the officers attempted to arrest him on disorderly conduct charges.
These two unrelated incidents are not inclusive of the abuse that happens with officers’ discretion to charge with disorderly conduct, but they are representative. Even without specific and appalling incidents like these, the potential for abuse demands legal reform.
In many cases, disorderly conduct laws are so broad that they should be considered unconstitutional. The enforcement of these laws, even though it does not specifically prescribe unreasonable limitations on the first amendment, is likely to lead to unacceptable violations. Most disorderly conduct laws are very old and have not been revised since the early 20th century.
Perhaps incidents like these recent ones, if they get enough media attention, will push lawmakers to clarify disorderly conduct laws. There is enough room to more narrowly define the crime without sabatoging the ability of law enforcement to preserve the peace when individuals are actually disturbing it.