Originally posted at the Washington Examiner on August 28, 2010. Some edits have been made to the original article.
It’s an enduring doctrine in America that one’s home is off limits to prying eyes and ears, and can be defended to the death if necessary. It’s not strictly true, of course, and certain states have eroded the doctrine to a gossamer wisp of the core idea. Yet, we tend to operate on an almost instinctual presumption that, when we are on our own property, we are kings and queens of the castle.
The resisting-arrest conviction last week of Felicia Gibson has left a lot of people wondering. Can a person be charged with resisting arrest while observing a traffic stop from his or her own front porch?
Salisbury Police Officer Mark Hunter thought so, and last week District Court Judge Beth Dixon agreed. Because Gibson did not at first comply when the officer told her and others to go inside, the judge found Gibson guilty of resisting, delaying or obstructing an officer.
Gibson was not the only bystander watching the action on the street. She was the only one holding up a cell-phone video camera. But court testimony never indicated that Hunter told her to stop the camera; he just told her to go inside.
Taking video of police stops is becoming more common with the ubiquity of cell-phone cameras and the like, and so is the backlash from law enforcement as has been amply covered by people like Glenn Reynolds (the famous Instapundit) and Radley Balko (from Reason Magazine). From the account given, it appears this why Ms. Gibson was arrested. What makes her case unique, however, is that she was on her own front porch when the encounter took place, and that she was taken into custody on a charge of “resisting arrest.”
Salisbury Police Chief Rorie Collins explained the North Carolina statute, under which Gibson was charged, as this:
“This crime is considered a Class 2 misdemeanor and involves:
“Any person who shall willfully and unlawfully resist, delay, or obstruct a public officer in discharging or attempting to discharge a duty of his office.
“Obviously, this charge is rather broad and can encompass many different types of actions that are designed to, or serves to hinder a law enforcement officer as he/she performs their duties.
“This charge is most commonly used in situations where a person who is being arrested refuses to cooperate and either passively or aggressively resists an arrest or tries to run away.
“Another very common situation in which this charge is used involves instances when an officer is conducting an investigation and the individuals with whom he/she is dealing provide a false identity when required to identify themselves.
“As you can imagine, there are also many other circumstances in which this charge would be appropriate.”
Chief Collins wouldn’t comment on the specifics of Gibson’s case, but did allow that, in general one does have the right to observe a police stop from one’s own property. He also seemed to suggest that a charge of resisting arrest may still be appropriate in a situation where bystanders refuse to obey police commands to exit the area for their own safety.
“However, just as with many other scenarios, it is important to remember that every situation is based upon its own merits/circumstances. There are some circumstances in which the police who have stopped the vehicle in front of your house may determine that it is in the interest of safety (the officer’s, yours or the individual stopped) to require that folks move. As with other circumstances, it is best advised that an individual merely obey by the officer’s commands.”
Perhaps on a public street the Chief might have a point, in that a colorable argument could be made that the police are charged with protecting the safety of the public highways and byways, even where the only danger is self-imposed.
But to arrest someone who is unmistakably on their own property, and doing nothing remotely illegal, is an abuse of power pure and simple. Even if it were true that Gibson was endangering herself by witnessing the traffic stop from the confines of her front porch, how could that possibly be construed as “resisting arrest” or “obstructing the police” without eviscerating everything that the concept of private property (not to mention plain old individual rights) stands for? Taking such a risk is not illegal. Doing it while occupying one’s homestead should be recognized as unassailably within one’s rights.
Since it appears that neither the police nor the district attorney’s office can be shamed into refraining from such power abuses, perhaps it will take a fat lawsuit for violations of Gibson’s (et al.) constitutional rights to get their attention.
The castle walls may be crumbling and decayed, but the invaders can be fought back and the walls rebuilt.