Thanks, Hallowell P.D.

I don’t normally thank the police for their services – I’m more suspicious of them than anything – but this past weekend was Old Hallowell Day, an annual event celebrating the anniversary of when Hallowell, Maine became a town. As usual, the police were out in full force, including a number of state troopers. They did a fine job of keeping the peace, even breaking up one potential fight only a few feet away from me.

I’m glad they were there.

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Thought of the day

I’m not saying I’m going to do it, but I shouldn’t be able to easily outrun the majority of my local police department officers. In fact, that goes for members of all police departments. Unfortunately, the fact is that most of the police departments I see around Maine have members who would have no chance outrunning a reasonably fit 20-something male. There ought to be a target point on a BMI chart that, should an officer meet it, results in some sort of monetary reward. Ideally, perhaps we might want to punish officers for not meeting some reasonable standard, but it is effectiveness, not ideology, which matters here.

A slice of humble pie

Cameron Ward is a civil rights lawyer in Canada. (He is also a pretty good goalie from Canada, playing for the Hurricanes. But that’s another guy.) In 2002 he was arrested on suspicion of plotting to throw a pie at the Prime Minister.

[P]olice – acting on an anonymous tip that someone was preparing to pie then-Prime Minister Jean Chretien at a nearby event – arrested Cameron Ward as he walked to work.

Ward, who did not have pie with him, was jailed for several hours, subjected to a partial strip search and had his car impounded.

He was released after Chretien’s event was over, and the prime minister — who had been pied at an East Coast event in 2000 — never did suffer a pie attack.

Ward then sued the Vancouver police for wrongful arrest. A court ruled in his favor, awarding him approximately $10,000. Vancouver then appealed the ruling, resulting in this a ruling from Canada’s Supreme Court:

The justices unanimously sided with Ward, however, although they struck down the C$100 he got for having his car impounded.

“He had a constitutional right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure, which was violated in an egregious fashion,” wrote the court, ruling that the rights violation was great enough to warrant damages being paid.

This has taken 8 years to conclude. It has cost the city far more than the awarded 10 grand when the legal fees, time and energy, and embarrassment are all factored. But what could have solved the problem much, much, much more quickly? What could have saved everyone from this whole show? It turns out the answer is pretty simple. The courts and police just needed to fess up to their obvious error in judgement.

“All of this has cost hundreds of thousands of dollars needlessly because all I ever wanted was an apology,” Ward insisted.

The audacity.

The police fear of being recorded

There are a lot of ways police can legally screw people over.

It’s called civil asset forfeiture. You probably already have heard of something like this, where the police get to seize the car and house of some drug kingpin and stick the money in the department’s budget (that’s criminal forfeiture).

But then there’s this loophole where the police can seize anything they suspect has been used in a crime, even if it doesn’t belong to the criminal, and even if there hasn’t been a conviction.

Then if you, as the actual owner of the goods, try to challenge it, the burden of proof is on you to prove you didn’t know it was going to be used in a crime. That’s civil forfeiture.

For the police, there is no legal requirement to prove “beyond reasonable doubt” that, say, your TV set was once used by a ring of Dutch pedophiles to view kiddie porn. They can simply take it, without ever giving it back, even if they never formally charge anyone for a crime.

This is obviously bullshit. The police do not deserve this much power. Ever. The average citizens needs all the tools available at his disposal to fight this legal abuse. Unfortunately, police have the ability to take away at least one of those tools.

In response to a flood of Facebook and YouTube videos that depict police abuse, a new trend in law enforcement is gaining popularity. In at least three states [Illinois, Massachusetts, and Maryland], it is now illegal to record any on-duty police officer.

Police are routinely convicted thanks to video evidence. They’re human. They make errors, stupid decisions, and can be just as criminal as anyone else. They are not special. To take away the ability to catch them when they royally fuck up poses a serious danger to society.

A recent arrest in Maryland is both typical and disturbing.

On March 5, 24-year-old Anthony John Graber III’s motorcycle was pulled over for speeding. He is currently facing criminal charges for a video he recorded on his helmet-mounted camera during the traffic stop.

The case is disturbing because:

1) Graber was not arrested immediately. Ten days after the encounter, he posted some of he material to YouTube, and it embarrassed Trooper J. D. Uhler. The trooper, who was in plainclothes and an unmarked car, jumped out waving a gun and screaming. Only later did Uhler identify himself as a police officer. When the YouTube video was discovered the police got a warrant against Graber, searched his parents’ house (where he presumably lives), seized equipment, and charged him with a violation of wiretapping law.

2) Baltimore criminal defense attorney Steven D. Silverman said he had never heard of the Maryland wiretap law being used in this manner. In other words, Maryland has joined the expanding trend of criminalizing the act of recording police abuse. Silverman surmises, “It’s more [about] ‘contempt of cop’ than the violation of the wiretapping law.”

3) Police spokesman Gregory M. Shipley is defending the pursuit of charges against Graber, denying that it is “some capricious retribution” and citing as justification the particularly egregious nature of Graber’s traffic offenses. Oddly, however, the offenses were not so egregious as to cause his arrest before the video appeared.

Take a look at the video. Graber was horribly speeding and acting entirely irresponsible on the road, but that’s all he was doing. He deserves a severe ticket and probably a temporary suspension of his license. Nothing more.

The cop, J.D. Uhler, ought to receive a reprimand for pulling his gun like an utter toolbag right after the charges are dismissed against Graber. I don’t foresee such justice.

But it isn’t all bad news.

Happily, even as the practice of arresting “shooters” expands, there are signs of effective backlash. At least one Pennsylvania jurisdiction has reaffirmed the right to video in public places. As part of a settlement with ACLU attorneys who represented an arrested “shooter,” the police in Spring City and East Vincent Township adopted a written policy allowing the recording of on-duty policemen.

As journalist Radley Balko declares, “State legislatures should consider passing laws explicitly making it legal to record on-duty law enforcement officials.”

I hope these laws and interpretations of existing laws make their way to the Supreme Court. Scalia would probably make his usual political ruling in favor of police, but there’s hope enough justices would see just how wrong this all is.

Be sure to check out Photography is Not a Crime for more.

Let freedom ring

Freedom of information, that is.

I recently gave an update on my experience using the Maine Freedom of Information Access Act. On two separate occasions I got stonewalled by some Lieutenant who was not familiar with the act (nor with humility). Eventually, the city manager gave me the information. A couple of days later I got this (emphasis added).

Dear Mr. Hawkins:

I have been advised you have made contact twice this week with Lt. J. Chris Read requesting copies of any disciplinary action taken against Officer Richard Dubois. I am now aware that you made your first request on Monday, Mark 9th and returned on Wednesday, March 11th. Each time you received a verbal denial from Lt. Read advising that the information you were requesting is confidential as personnel records are confidential.

I must apologize that as you are aware, should there be a final written decision relating to a disciplinary action taken against an employee, that information is not confidential and you would have a right to access of that information. Your request should have been handled differently and following a review of the individual’s personnel file, you should have been advised that there are no disciplinary action documents in the file. I have personally checked the officer’s personnel file and can state that there are no disciplinary documents of any kind in the file.

As a result of how your request for information was handled by a member of my staff, I have undertaken a review of our procedures pertaining to public access to records. All Police Supervisors are to review our Standard Operating Procedure, Public Access to Records, to ensure that a request for information is handled properly.

Again, there is no information pertaining to disciplinary action regarding Officer Richard Dubois to provide to you per your request. I am truly sorry for the inconvenience you have experienced.

Sincerely

Chief Wayne M McCamish

Quality response. This covers the department from the $500 fine to which Lt. Read potentially subjected them since it covers both my requests within 5 business days of receiving them. While it would have been interesting to see the whole process of a fine being assessed to either the police department or the city itself, I’m far happier to see that the law was followed correctly. Regardless, I’ve contacted a local paper to see if they’re interested in having me write this story for them (I’ve written for them in the past [usually about local hiking]).