Police snatched a phone from a disabled wheelchair-bound veteran who was recording them in front of a VA hospital in Tennessee as they harassed him over his service dog for not wearing a muzzle Tuesday.
However, there is no law that requires service dogs to wear muzzles. And there is certainly no law against him recording them.
But the VA police still cited him with “unauthorized photography,” a statute that only applies in cases of voyeurism, especially of minors, when there is no expectation of privacy.
Todd MacRae, 54, says the Veterans Affairs cops, who are stationed at the James H Quillen VA Medical Center in Mountain Home, have had it in for him ever since three weeks ago when he got into an argument with them when he felt they were invading his medical privacy during a visit to a cardiologist.
He had open heart surgery last year and was visiting a new cardiologist at the hospital which he has attended weekly since 1998 for international normalized ratio (INR) tests to determine if his blood is too thick, which can lead to clotting, or too thin, which can lead to bleeding.
He got off on the wrong foot with the cardiologist because he believed she was accusing him of lying about his drinking habits.
“I felt as if she was calling me a liar and I don’t drink,” MacRae said in a telephone interview with Photography is Not a Crime Tuesday.
“I told her, ‘don’t call me a liar.'”
He got agitated and she became uptight. A clerk called police but by the time they got there, MacRae had calmed down and the doctor told them she was not afraid of him and would continue visiting with him.
But the cops lingered in the room, irritating MacRae, so he ordered them out of the room.
And they did not like that.
He eventually left the doctor’s office, wheeling into the hallway where he was confronted by police, who were waiting for him, still upset that he had ordered him of of the room.
They accused him of “disturbing the peace,” and ordered him, along with his dog, to follow them downstairs to their office, where they could cite them.
“I told them, ‘write me a ticket or shut the fuck up,'” he said, acknowledging that he doesn’t hesitate to speak his mind to the cops.
Not appreciating his attitude, the cops began insulting MacRae, calling him a fraud because he had never served in combat, then accusing Belle, his Belgium Malinois, of being a “vicious dog,” even though MacRae says she has never bitten anybody in her life.
A week later, his 23-year-old daughter dropped him off for his weekly blood tests, but because she had to attend class at the local college, she left him two hours earlier than his appointment.
So he entered the Starbucks on hospital property with his dog, which is completely allowed, but then one of the cops from the previous week entered, recognized him, and started hassling him about his “vicious dog” not being muzzled.
The cop ordered him off the hospital under threat of trespass arrest, which caused MacRae to miss his weekly appointment for his blood tests that enables him to survive despite having more than 20 pieces of metal in his neck.
“I had to call my daughter to come pick me up and she had to leave school,” the former construction worker said.
On Tuesday, he was at the hospital for another appointment, minding his own business in front of the hospital, when a VA cop walks up and begins hassling him about his dog.
Unlike the two prior incidents, MacRae began recording with his phone, only for the cop to lie and say he was not allowed, then eventually snatching it from him.
The cops kept his phone for two hours as they tried to get doctors to involuntarily commit him for mental health issues, but a trio of doctors, including a psychiatrist and a psychologists, did not believe he needed to be committed after talking to him at length.
The cops gave him several citations, including one for “unlawful photography,” and another for disturbing the peace, but the only peace that was disrupted was by the peace officers themselves.
“They clearly believe that just because I’m disabled, that I am unable to stand up for my rights,” he said.
UPDATE: Within hours of this story being posted, leading to numerous phone calls to the police department at the James H Quillen VA Medical Center, MacRae was arrested at his home on a probation violation.
His daughter, Coy MacRae, 23, was home at the time and said the Washington County deputies who made the arrest never specified how exactly did he violate his probation.
But now he has a $10,000 bond, which he can’t afford, meaning he will likely remain in jail for up to 30 days, she said.
MacRae has been on probation for more than 10 years stemming from an incident with his ex-wife, Coy’s stepmother at the time, where they were arguing in a car.
Her father was ordering her out of the car and the woman was trying to stay in the car, but an officer who spotted the commotion sided with the woman and he was arrested on kidnapping charges.
“I was there, I saw what happened,” said Coy, who lives with her father and now is forced to take care of the dog in between her job and college courses.
“She is pacing between me and the front door crying,” she said of Belle, the Belgium Malinois that led to his conflict with the Veterans Affairs officers at the hospital.
Coy said the officers took a disliking to the dog three weeks earlier as they were harassing her father and one of them stepped on the dog’s foot, causing her to yelp and jerk back, prompting him to label her a “vicious dog.”
Coy also said that her father was cited for “unlawful photography” under the federal code, not the state code as initially reported, which states the following:
(10) Photographs for news, advertising, or commercial purposes. Photographs for advertising or commercial purposes may be taken only with the written consent of the head of the facility or designee. Photographs for news purposes may be taken at entrances, lobbies, foyers, or in other places designated by the head of the facility or designee.
Because he was not recording for commercial or advertising purposes (which are the same thing), he was under no obligation to obtain written consent.
And considering he outside near the entrance of the hospital, documenting his interaction with police, for a video that can be clearly defined as being for “news purposes,” he was no in violation of that code.
He was also cited for disorderly conduct under the federal code, which states the following:
(a) A person is guilty of disorderly conduct if, with purpose to cause public inconvenience, annoyance or alarm or recklessly creating a risk thereof, he or she:
(1) Engages in fighting or threatening, or in violent or tumultuous behavior;
(2) Makes unreasonable noise or offensively coarse utterance, gesture or display, or addresses abusive language to any person present; or
(3) Creates a hazardous or physically offensive condition by any act which serves no legitimate purpose of the actor.
(b) Public means affecting or likely to affect persons in a place to which the public has access; among the places included are highways, schools, prisons, apartments, places of business or amusement, or any neighborhood.
(c) An offense under this section is a petty misdemeanor if the actor’s purpose is to cause substantial harm or serious inconvenience, or if he or she persists in disorderly conduct after reasonable warning or request to desist. Otherwise, disorderly conduct is a violation.
MacRae is being held at the Washington County Detention Center (423-753-1701) and needs help in getting bonded out and getting legal help.
Coy said the deputies who arrested her father were at least professional. She can’t say the same for the officers at the VA medical center.
“I’m appalled at the behavior of those officers on VA property,” she said. “I’m appalled at their inability to relinquish control where they can’t let some dude with a dog lie around in his wheelchair and be in peace.
“They just have a personal vendetta against him and they are not going to let it go.”
The police at that particular VA hospital can be reached at (423) 926-1171, ex. 7194 or 7197.
UPDATE II: MacRae has had issues before over his service dog when he said sheriff deputies wouldn’t allow him into a courtroom with Belle unless he provided documentation that she was, in fact, a service dog.
But a change in state law in 2013 limited the questions that can be asked of service dogs when entering a business, office, establishment or government building.
So it’s clear that MacRae might be a bit of a rabble-rouser, not that there is anything illegal about it (and we need more of those), but that can also make one a target for law enforcement officials with a tendency to abuse their power as we’re seeing with the Veterans Affairs cops.
According to a January 10, 2014 article in the Johnson City Press:
“They’re only allowed to ask two things,” McRae said. “‘Is it a service dog?’ and ‘How does the dog help you with your disability?’ The only requirement of me is that my dog behave appropriately in public and that it’s potty trained.”
McRae said he was actually allowed into the building initially, but was confronted during the court break when he was headed outside to smoke.
“They made me stand there for a half hour. I was in the foyer … I wasn’t allowed to go inside,” he said.
McRae said he did finally produce his dog’s certification documents, but only because he was afraid he’d be late for his court hearing.
Deputies working at the courthouse entrance called for their supervisor, Capt. Larry Denny, to further handle the situation.
Denny denies McRae was kept from entering the courthouse.
“He wasn’t denied entry. He took his dog into the courtroom. All we did was we asked him for documentation to show it was actually a service dog,” Denny said.
The captain acknowledged he and his officers were unaware of the law change regarding the request for paperwork. Everyone with the department now has a copy of the changes and is completely aware of the what he law allows, he added.
Maj. Russell Jamerson said the law is very specific about what can be asked of a person with a service animal before being allowed into a public facility.
“Basically we are allowed to ask if the animal is required because of a disability and we can ask what task the animal has been trained to perform,” Jamerson said. “As long as the service animal doesn’t cause any disruptions, and it has to be housebroken, if they say it’s a service animal, it’s coming in.”