On the night of my arrest, I had been standing inside a construction zone in Miami that was open for pedestrian traffic but closed for automobile traffic.
I took a few photos of police officers conducting a traffic investigation about 20 yards away when one of the officers asked if she could help me.
I identified myself as a journalist and told her I was taking photos for an article.
The Miami police officer told me I needed to keep moving as this was a “private matter.”
I told her this was a “public street.”
And thus began the incident that would land me in jail for 16 hours on nine criminal charges ranging from disorderly conduct to obstruction of traffic.
But the only offense I committed that night is not even listed in the Florida statutes.
That offense is contempt of cop.
Although contempt of cop is not found in any U.S. law books, it is informally used among many officers when a civilian questions an officer’s authority or asserts their Constitutional rights.
And it has landed thousands of people in jail who have not broken any laws.
Most recently it was used to arrest two TV reporters in El Paso in an incident caught on video.
And that’s according to a former El Paso Assistant Police Chief.
George DeAngelis, who now teaches criminal justice after having spent 28 years as a police officer, said it was evident that Sgt. Raul Ramirez had allowed his emotions to take over when he hopped over the fence, according to the Newspaper Tree, an El Paso online newspaper.
“People go to jail in contempt-of-cop situations more than any reason nationally,” DeAngelis said. “You could see it in the video. The situation became more personal between the officer and the reporter than the overriding issues of public safety.
“You can see it, and you and hear it in the language of the officer when he said, ‘I gave you an order.’ That’s what contempt means: ‘How dare you not obey my order.’ It’s personal. You’re challenging the officer’s authority. It has nothing to do at that point with the overall safety of the scene. That’s why you see him reacting emotionally rather than rationally.”
“You have to remember, he’s a supervisor,” DeAngelis said of Ramirez. “He should be directing that scene. But you can see he’s climbing the fence. His body language is very aggressive. He feels his authority is being challenged. He has one thing on his mind: ‘I’m going to show you who’s in charge here.’ All sense of reasonableness has evaporated.”
A 2002 Las Vegas Review-Journal editorial said the phenomenon occurs when citizens understand and assert their rights.
Mr. Wright’s crime was indicating that he knew the law and his rights. But many officers don’t seem to like citizens who know and assert their rights. In this case, Mr. Wright reports that his two interrogators responded, “You’re giving us lip? OK, you’re under arrest.”
The real offense here, clearly, was “Contempt of Cop.”
And here is an excerpt from a 1998 Washington Post article about the phenomenon.
Klotz, who frequently testifies against police departments as an expert witness in brutality cases, said officers may regard a citizen’s questions or refusal to fully cooperate as an offense known informally among police as “contempt of cop” – a sign of disrespect that could escalate into trouble.
The El Paso reporters were released within an hour after a commander determined there was not enough probable cause to make the arrest stick. But that was only because the entire incident was caught on video.
In my case, I was slapped with five counts of refusing a lawful order, which just goes to show you how emotional these cops had become. Those five charges were later reduced to a single charge as the State Attorney’s Office prepared my case for trial.
One of the most notorious contempt of cop cases to make headlines was last year’s arrest of an Albuquerque TV news videographer. Because that incident was caught on video, charges were dropped against the videographer and the cop was terminated.
That incident also prompted Albuquerque Police Chief Ray Schultz to issue a new policy stating that officers were not to arrest people for “refusing to obey” unless that person was already being arrested for another crime or physically keeping the officer from carrying out his duties.
Defense attorneys derisively call the refusing to obey charge “contempt of cop” and claim that APD routinely violates residents’ First Amendment rights when they use it.
Civilians are not the only ones to fall victim to contempt of cop.
Earlier this month, Phoenix Police Chief Jack Harris ordered a raid on the house of one of his officers after that officer had questioned certain crime lab blunders and was suspected of leaking information to a Phoenix blogger whose house was also raided.
And last year, a Louisiana police chief – who is also a convicted felon – had a former police officer arrested after he sent an email to a local newspaper asking why they had not reported on the chief’s alleged misconducts.
Even DeAngelis, who was once the second highest ranked officers in the El Paso Police Department, appears to have fallen victim himself.
DeAngelis, who was the No. 2 officer in the El Paso Police Department and left the force in 2002 in the furor that erupted after he lodged a complaint against then-Chief Carlos Leon, said the department had such a system in place.
So how can we expect cops to respect our First Amendment rights when they are retaliated against for expressing their own First Amendment rights?