Thursday, October 18, 2007

Standing On A Sidewalk: A Crime In N.Y.

The NY times has an article on the fascinating case of Matthew Jones. Jones was arrested in the wee hours of the morning on June 12, 2004 for standing with a group of friends on a sidewalk in Times Square.

The arresting officer noticed the group standing on the sidewalk, noting "numerous pedestrians in the area had to walk around defendants" and asked the group to move along. When Jones declined the officer tried to arrest him, leading to a brief foot pursuit and additional charges against Jones for resisting arrest. Jones pled guilty to the charge of disorderly conduct and the other charges were dropped. Upon further consideration, Jones decided to contest the charge he pled guilty to (unwittingly giving Larry Craig a helpful chart to navigate future legal waters).

To clarify, this isn't about loitering laws or blocking public access to buildings and so forth. Jones was charged with disorderly conduct because he stood on a sidewalk, and pedestrians had to walk around him, plain and simple.

This story may not get alot of play from the lefty blogoshpere, but I think it should. N.Y. law enforcement has a long and rich history of spying on and repressing demonstrators, profiling and abusing minorities and so on and so forth. Now they are arresting people for standing on the sidewalk. Most folks who follow the news think it is some other group who is being targeted by the cops when these types of stories break. But everybody has stood on a sidewalk and never given a second thought about avoiding law enforcement for doing so.

The officer is not claiming that Jones was being abusive or causing any sort of untoward inconvenience for passers by. He was simply doing what many folk do every day on sidewalks around the globe. The reporter went to the scene of the "crime" just prior to rush hour, when foot traffic is much heavier than the early a.m. hours, and noted the following activity taking place:
a man eating clams out of a Styrofoam container; two men smoking cigarettes together; a man waiting for a woman to finish a phone call [I wonder who should be arrested on that, the woman holding up the phone or the guy waiting for her... or both?! ]; a guy looking at a map; a young woman sending a text message; two men handing out tour brochures; and a family of five, including an infant in a stroller, who stopped to look at the brochures.
The judges who heard the case seemed a bit incredulous about this as well:
“Isn’t that lawful conduct?” wondered Judge Robert S. Smith. Later he added, “Your conduct can’t be illegal just because an officer noticed it.”

His colleague Judge Eugene F. Pigott Jr. questioned what other violations might attract law enforcement attention.

“All I could think of was a bunch of lawyers from the New York City Bar Association standing around trying to figure out where to have lunch,” Judge Pigott said. (The association has offices a block and a half from Times Square.)

Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye seemed likewise nonplused. “This is at 2 a.m.?” she asked, wondering how many pedestrians it would have been possible to inconvenience at that hour. “I guess I’m not in Times Square at 2 a.m. very often.”
The N.Y. times approaches this story as a light hearted human interest type article, but I think this goes to something far deeper in society. How much freedom are we willing to give up to the authorities in these times? Can they really just arrest you now for just being a regular person who catches their attention. Disorderly conduct charges for leading absolutely normal lives. Even as you read this post people are standing on the very sidewalk Jones was arrested on, and apparently if a police officer felt like it, they could be arrested for doing so. It might cause us to roll our eyes and chuckle as we read about the Jones case in particular, but I do believe this case has a bearing on each and every one of us.

Yes indeed. Now we live in a police state.
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