The law behind the controversy.
July 27, 2009 9:40 AM   Subscribe

Some legal questions about the arrest of Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

If I am in my home and a police officer comes to the door and either asks or orders me to step outside, for whatever reason, am I legally obligated to do so? My dad says I am, I think not. Who's right?

Also, for the reason that Gates was arrested: basically yelling and screaming and causing a scene. Is it illegal to yell at a police officer? Does it make a difference if it occurs in the individual's home or happens elsewhere? Is it completely up to the officer to decide if the law has been broken in that instance?
posted by zardoz to Law & Government (16 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
What jurisdiction are you asking about? Japan?
posted by Jaltcoh at 9:43 AM on July 27, 2009

The Slate Explainer had a great piece on this which answers these questions -- here.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 9:44 AM on July 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

In addition to the article ClaudiaCenter linked, here's another that addresses your second question in regards to yelling: according to this, it's not illegal to yell at a police officer in the state of Massachusetts. It also references Massachusetts legal precedent saying the same for gatherings of people:

"In Commonwealth v. Mallahan, a decision rendered last year, an appeals court held that a person who launched into an angry, profanity-laced tirade against a police officer in front of spectators could not be convicted of disorderly conduct."
posted by empyrean at 10:00 AM on July 27, 2009 [3 favorites]

If I am in my home and a police officer comes to the door and either asks or orders me to step outside, for whatever reason, am I legally obligated to do so?

Your dad may be thinking of the rules for those in motor vehicles -- you ARE obligated to get out of your car if asked. Home is a different story.

Re yelling at a police officer: When I lived in Virginia (and I assume this is still the case), it was illegal to use profanity to a police officer. Most people agitated enough to yell at a cop are probably going to say fuck or shit along the way.
posted by desuetude at 10:18 AM on July 27, 2009

And academic ID's are much more easily fabricated than state and federally issued ID's.

I don't believe you can be forced out of your home without a warrant in the US. Cops can't just come to the door and order you out without it.

Although these days, who knows? They'd probably just send Dick Cheney in with a shotgun or something.
posted by Aquaman at 10:58 AM on July 27, 2009

There's a bit of misconception on the ID presented.

It wasn't his license. It was his Harvard ID. It wasn't any sort of state or government identification. It was applicable to his employment. Identified him by name, picture and employer. Nothing to indicate he lived in or occupied the home.

His work badge.

My work badge has my picture, a bar code, an RFID, my employee ID number and department. Any employer would be poorly advised to put your home address on your employment ID, if only for the fact they'd have to reprint them everytime you relocated.
posted by jerseygirl at 11:13 AM on July 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

The other aspect of the matter is the officer stated that he was trying to ascertain who was in the house or if Mr. Gates was unaware that someone else may be in the house. I believe it was police procedure to get them outside the house to make such a determination for the sake of safety of all involved.

If I am in my home and a police officer comes to the door and either asks or orders me to step outside, for whatever reason, am I legally obligated to do so?

I don't know if you are legally obligated, but it might be part of police procedure. The situation is not as if the cops just came up to the door without causation and demanded ID.

And just for a frame of reference? About two months ago, on the way out of the house, the little throw rug in front of the front door caught as I closed the door, setting off the alarm as I drove away. About 5 minutes down the road, I get a call from the security company saying the front door alarm is going off. I u-turn and head home.

I run into the house, disarm the screeching alarm, come back to the screen door and meet two cops that are standing at the bottom of the steps about to come up. They ask me if I am the owner of the house. I confirm I am. They ask if anyone else is in the house. I state that I didn't believe so, it appeared the rug got caught in the door and I just disarmed the alarm. They ask me to step outside and show them ID that states as much. And I do.

They thanked me and we all went on our way. I'm a white girl... in Massachusetts.
posted by jerseygirl at 11:23 AM on July 27, 2009

They knew there were going to the residence of Henry Gates. He showed ID. I haven't seen anything that indicates he even needed ID in the situation.

This is a good summary to add to the Slate link.

What I want to know is, the neighbor who called - was she up to something? You know, they type that complains about parties that aren't legally loud and "loose dogs" who are on Flexi leashes...
posted by Lesser Shrew at 11:29 AM on July 27, 2009

The neighborhood had recently been subject to burglaries, Lesser.
posted by jerseygirl at 11:31 AM on July 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

CNN reports on what the caller reported to 911:

posted by Roger Dodger at 12:01 PM on July 27, 2009

[A few comments removed. This needs to be more about the questions asked and less a general argument about Gates and cops and ID, so please try not to drift too far.]
posted by cortex (staff) at 12:20 PM on July 27, 2009

We're still arguing the Gates case in the blue, if anyone's interested.
posted by desuetude at 1:03 PM on July 27, 2009

[if you're not answering the OPs specific questions, please take this to the thread in the blue and don't replicate it, thanks.]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 1:40 PM on July 27, 2009

There's a bit of misconception on the ID presented. It wasn't his license. It was his Harvard ID. It wasn't any sort of state or government identification.

Although the police report mentions only a Harvard ID, Gates himself insists that he did provide his driver's license.

Either way, it seems that the officer was inclined to accept the ID at face value, so its relevance to the arrest appears limited.
posted by dhartung at 3:01 PM on July 27, 2009

If you are in your home, an officer has no standing to order you to step outside. If they have a warrant, or there are exigent circumstances the officer may have standing to enter your home.

Police officers are not granted special rights. Yelling and screaming at someone is protected free speech, you can put on an NWA tape in your home and sing f- the police and dance around flipping off the cop and no crime is being committed.
posted by zentrification at 3:23 PM on July 27, 2009

Just for comparison, there is an offence of "offensive language" in Australia, and police officers have used it on a number of occasions to arrest people who've used certain words when speaking to them, however a District Court Judge in Townsville, Queensland went on record as saying that in the general community, certain words were fairly commonplace and therefore, not necessarily covered by the "offensive" part of the law:
Four-letter words are frequently used in communication in public places. It is not unusual to hear the words "fuck" and "cunt" used at football games at the local sports reserve, or aboard the public bus flooded with high school students, in lounge bars in the city, in suburban hotels, on inner-city taxi ranks, and on the streets when motorists protest at each other about their driving skills. It is even common experience to hear these words used by police in the watch-house and by members of the local legal fraternity in the precincts of the local courts. This list is seemingly endless.

In all these cases, the words were spoken to a police officer, and the arrest followed disobedience to a police direction, irrespective of whether that direction was legally based. Judge Wylie forms the view that in most of these cases the direction was unlawful and legally unjustifiable.
See here and here for further reading.

It would be interesting to see a test case be argued in a US court.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 6:07 PM on July 27, 2009

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