The Washington State Supreme Court has had a busy term. In what many are lauding as a huge step for 1stAmendment Rights, the Court recently issued an opinion overturning a conviction for Obstructing a Law Enforcement Officer. In the original case, a 17-year old boy was charged and convicted of Obstructing after he yelled at and observed Seattle Police interacting with his sister. The officers had apparently been called by the teenager's mother after a sibling began breaking windows in the family home. The teenager took it upon himself to observe the police officers interaction with his sister. At some point his observations escalated and he also began yelling at the officers, including what are described only as expletives, but he never interfered while the police discharged their duties. Even though the teenager never physical interfered and obeyed most of the commands directed at home, with the exception of ceasing his verbal commentary, he was still charged and eventually convicted of obstructing.
Even more disturbing than the ease with which the charge was being levied is the way in which the charge was being distributed. According to an article in The Stranger, between 2006 and 2008, over half of the charges for Obstructing in the City of Seattle were against African American defendants. This is even more notable considering only 8% of Seattle's population is African American.
In Washington Obstructing a Law Enforcement Officer is defined in RCW 9A.76.020. The law while seemingly simple is actually very broad. The statute defines obstructing as:
A person is guilty of obstructing a law enforcement officer if the person willfully hinders, delays, or obstructs any law enforcement officer in the discharge of his or her official powers or duties.
Prior to the recent ruling by the Washington Supreme Court a person's exercise of their 1st Amendment Rights could be sufficient to get charged with obstructing. Obstructing a Law Enforcement Officers is a gross misdemeanor in Washington meaning it carries a maximum penalty of 364 days in jail and a $5000 fine. The charge can carry significant penalties and is placed in the same category as assault, violation of a domestic violence protection order, and driving under the influence.
In its 14 page opinion, the Court focused on the necessity of conduct in order to meet the required elements of Obstructing a Law Enforcement Officer. The Court's opinion outlined the judiciaries repeated frustration with the legislature's attempts to criminalize constitutionally protected behavior – especially protected speech. On at least three separate occasions the Court has found the Obstructing of a Law Enforcement Officer unconstitutional. In the most recent case, the Court once again held that “as our history makes clear, conduct is a prerequisite of an obstruction charge.”
Even though the lower courts had cited to some of the teenagers behavior as being conduct sufficient to support the conviction, the Supreme Court disagreed. For example, the Court was not persuaded that one of the officers needing to escort the teenager back to his doorway was sufficient to establish a conviction for obstructing. The Court took time to note several different instances of what the state had construed as “conduct” – rather than finding obstructing the Court made sure to note that a slight delay in the discharge of duties or a person's failure to act in a way that is most convenient for the police officers is insufficient to establish an obstructing conviction. This is especially true in cases when the “conduct” is paired with a constitutionally protected activity such as speech.
The full text of the opinion can be found here. It is a short opinion at only 14 pages and has some interesting analysis regarding the difference between conduct that is constitutionally protected and conduct which carries possible criminal implications. Given the court once again providing clarification on this law, it will be interesting to see if there are any changes in the population and statistics going forward.