BoingBoing this morning drew attention to the upcoming jury trial of Minnesota professional violinist Stephan Orsack. They're outraged. Well, so am I, but not by the same things, but by some of Orsack's ideas of how this country is supposed to work, what the law says, and what rights he thinks he has. Later on in this narrative I'll be asking the question "Where in the hell do some people get these ideas?", so pay attention. Maybe together we come up with yet another in my series of articles in which I attempt to keep you from getting your ass kicked by a cop, potentially fatally, when it is entirely in your power to prevent it. (For previous entries, see October 3rd, 2005's "How Not to Get Killed: The Routine Traffic Stop" and March 1st of this year's "How Not to Get Killed 2: A Lawful Order.")
And since I am assured by many friends that this series gets misunderstood, let me lay some cards on the table up front: I am as appalled by actual police brutality as anybody, maybe more so. I insist, however, that almost all so called police brutality is caused not by out of control police officers but by people who think it's brutality when a cop uses any level of force against them, even if it's their own fault that the situation went down that way. Which, contrary to BoingBoing's outrage and that of much of the Internet, is exactly what happened here.
Let's review, and for the purposes of this review I will concentrate almost entirely on the facts that are not in dispute, where the police account and Mr. Orsack's account are in as full agreement as is possible for any two witnesses to be. Mr. Orsack flew home from somewhere, carrying in his luggage a folding bicycle that is his primary transportation, with a plan of riding his bicycle home from the airport. Since this is his home airport, I have no idea how he didn't know that there are no roads exiting the Minneapolis airport that are legal to ride a bicycle on, but he says that he was taken by surprise by this. There was one non-highway road, which he not unreasonably alleges that he didn't know was a closed access road but that even he admits was one-way the wrong way, one that was not open to him and his bicycle. The airport had banned such traffic long before; to give Mr. Orsack credit, the only sign that said so as of the night of Friday, September 7th of last year was in a place where he wouldn't have seen it. Mr. Orsack was riding his bicycle home when he was stopped by police and told that it was not legal to ride his bicycle here.
According to both sides' accounts, Mr. Orsack told officers that he didn't believe that they were right about the law, that he had no intention of obeying their order, that he intended to break this law again in the future, and that he wasn't going anywhere until he got to speak to those officers' superiors. Then he changed his mind and, by his own admission, made ready to continue breaking the law, to bicycle away. To detain him, the officers ordered him onto his knees. He once again disobeyed their order, and attempted to bicycle off. To stop this, the officers attempted to tackle him. When it became clear to them that he was going to get away, they fired a air-propelled Taser into him, bringing him down. His bicycle ended up flying into a busy street, and his glasses ended up stepped upon; he alleges that both actions were intentional, an accusation I find ridiculous, but it's up to others to decide who to believe. They then cuffed him, threw him into the squad car, booked him into jail, and there he sat until a judge could determine the amount of his bail that Monday. He has been charged with 6 crimes, the technical language of which can be summed up as: he was illegally riding his bicycle the wrong way in a no-bicycle zone, failed to obey the order to stop doing so, failed to obey the order to stop and listen to the officers, and then attempted to leave the scene where they were detaining him. Since on his web page and in his blog he confesses to all the necessary elements to convict him on at least 5 of those 6 charges, I'm fairly sure that he is making the second stupidest mistake of his life so far by insisting on a jury trial on all 6 charges, with jury selection scheduled to begin July 17th.
The biggest mistake he made was, of course, getting into this problem in the first place. And it occurred to me while reading it that this is a special case of a general problem that will, sooner or later, affect almost all Americans. You see, it's a centuries-old legal principle that "ignorance of the law is no excuse." But there is no way in hell that anybody can know every single line of the potentially tens of thousands of pages of laws and regulations that might apply to them in any given situation; odds are pretty good that some of them even conflict in ways that no court has bumped into yet and resolved. So to that end, even though they are legally allowed to arrest you for any crime, are almost legally required to do so, as a matter of good judgment and good public policy if the cop really does believe you when you say that you got into this situation because you really didn't know that part of how you got into it was illegal, we let the cops instruct you as to the law and let you go. Nonetheless, there is no law or even written policy that requires them to do so. If the cop tells you, "Well, it's illegal, so stop doing it and don't do it again," he is doing you a favor that he didn't have to do.
Now, it is quite possible that the cop didn't know the law, or didn't get it right. Cops aren't lawyers, and even lawyers can barely keep up with all the applicable law and case law in even one narrow specialty at a time. (Although that being said, I think it reasonable to assume that a city cop is probably pretty familiar with city ordinances, there usually being a lot fewer of them and they all being applicable to his job.) Mr. Orsack, being a bicyclist and heavily incented to know the laws that applied to bicycling, believed that he knew the applicable law better than the cop did. Some day, on some other specialty, probably so will you. Too bad. While you are detained by a cop and being given orders to comply with his understanding of the law is almost never the time to argue it with him. I've known of cases of extraordinarily careful and polite people getting away with showing the cop applicable law or applicable court orders and having the cop back down, but there are almost no circumstances where this is a good idea. When the cop gives you an order that you think he's not legally entitled to give you, the person to complain about is not that cop, and the time to complain is not right then. Go into the station the next day, or if you can't, call them up; let the cop's supervisors tell him what the law is. In general, if it won't kill you to obey this one time, work through the system to keep it from happening next time, rather than getting yourself arrested because you and the cop are lawyering each other. He doesn't have to lawyer you; his interpretation is binding until a judge says otherwise. That's what power of arrest means.
Although speaking of letting his supervisors handle it, once Mr. Orsack lost his temper he, by his own admission, said that he wasn't going to do anything that the officer asked him to do until the officer brought him his supervisor. Every time I run into this kind of stupidism, my jaw drops. Seriously, where do Americans get this insanely stupid idea that in any situation, public or private, they're entitled to demand that the front line person's supervisor show up right now and deal with their complaint? Yes, there are a few businesses that allow this, although even then, it's mostly a lie, an illusion, a trick. The person you're told is a supervisor almost certainly doesn't actually supervise anyone, let alone the person you're complaining about, they're just there to make you feel better. But even if there are a few restaurants or banks or whatever that have "supervisors" there to listen to your complaints, where did people get the mind-numbingly crazy idea that this is something that they're entitled to, and in every situation? And for Mr. Orsack, of course, the problem seems to be that he still doesn't realize that the sentence, "I'm not going to obey your order until I talk to your supervisor" can be legally punctuated after the word "order," that everything after that word is meaning-free noise since it's a false-to-fact conditional.
All of that being said, what do I think you should do in the all too probable eventual situation where the cop gives you an order that you can't comply with, or that will cost you substantially in time, money, or inconvenience that you don't think is fair since you thought what you were doing was legal? After all, that's really the situation that Orsack was in. Technically, there wasn't even a legal way for him to move. Practially speaking, the only legal way for a guy with a bicycle for transportation to leave the Minneapolis airport is to take a cab from the terminal to the first bicycle-legal road. Which is nuts, of course. But whether the law in question is nuts or not is not the officer's call to make, is it? Nonetheless, I know from long experience of being put in similar situations that if you plunked me into the same situation, about 7 times out of 10 I'd get the cop's own permission to ignore the law, and 9 times out of 10 I'd get the cop's permission to break the law just this one time. How do I do it? Simple.
First, when the cop tells you that you're breaking the law, the first first words out of your mouth need to be the sincerest apology you can manage. Say, "I'm sorry, officer, I didn't mean to break the law" and mean it. (Or at the very least, follow what I've heard most recently mis-attributed as Han Solo's Law.) The next thing you need to do is to make it absolutely clear and unambiguous and enthusiastic that you intend to obey the officer's order. If you do not get these two things up front, on the table, and out of the way right away then you might as well Mace, Taser, and beat the heck out of yourself, and save the officer the trouble. Because if instead you tell the officer that you don't respect the law and have no intention of obeying him, you have set yourself up for serious hard core trouble, and everything that happens after that is your own damned fault for being stupid.
But you're still stuck on a no-bicycles road with no legal way to bicycle out of where you're at, let alone all the way out of the airport, or whatever your equivalent situation is. So how do you get out of that jam without having to pay the cab fare? Once you have established to the officer that you are not an anarchist scofflaw and that you do know that he has the authority to arrest you if you disobey him, be smart and say the words that every officer, that every person, lives to hear: "Can you help me?" Tell him that you don't know how to obey his order legally and still do what you need to do. Ask him what he would do if he were in the same situation. Ask him what you're supposed to do this time, since you either physically can't or can't afford to obey the law and are thus in a jam, and ask him what you're supposed to do the next time? (Add to the evidence that Stephan Orsack is not just a moron but an actually bad person, he felt the need to explicitly tell the officer that not only was he going to break the law this time, but he was going to try to get away with it again in the future. Even if it's true, is it ever smart to tell that to a cop? Is there any reason to do so other than because you want to make him angry enough to beat the crap out of you?) Worst case, he tells you that no, you really are going to have to leave the airport in a motor vehicle every time, or whatever, but even then you're no worse off than you were before. And 3 gets you get he tells you, "Oh, never mind, you're right, that law is impossible to obey" or "Oh, never mind, the law probably is on your side." That was what you wanted, right?
True story of the old Brad Davidian Compound and the Infamous Brad Parties: At one of the first big Brad Parties, I got dragged out of the hot tub around midnight by panicked screaming partygoers yelling, "Brad, Brad, Brad! The police are here! We're in trouble! They want you!" I wrapped a towel around myself and went to the door, where two of Bridgeton's finest (and I say that with no irony at all) were in fact waiting patiently on my porch. I said to them, "Hello officers, I'm Brad Hicks, the home owner. Is there something I can help you with?" They explained that there had been a complaint about how many cars were parked on the road on the way to my house, and that they were concerned that, because of the narrowness of the road, a fire truck wouldn't be able to get through if any house in the neighborhood had a fire. I asked them for a moment so I could get a bathrobe and some slippers and a scrap of paper, and told them that any car they told me had to be moved, if it was one of my guests I would have them move it. I then went out and left it entirely up to them. And while they were deciding that, I said the magic words, "Officer, this has never happened before, and I don't know what to tell my friends to do. Can you give me some advice?" I asked them where I should suggest to people that they park. And even more than when I was polite to them on the porch, I am convinced that that is the point where I stopped being "someone throwing an annoying party" and became "a tax-paying homeowner who needs police help." They stopped what they were doing, pulled out their own copy of the city ordinances to go over them again, concluded that every single car was parked legally, and apologized for bothering me. It never came up again, and from then on the Bridgeton police department were never anything other than polite and helpful to me, no matter how weird my friends got. And trust me, they got pretty stupidly weird a couple of times. By being polite and putting it back on the officers to tell me exactly what I should do, I not only saved myself from a beating, I probably saved a half a dozen or a dozen of my friends from future beatings.
I mean, Jesus, people didn't anybody ever tell you that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar?
(P.S. dslartoo replied to the first one of these with a link to an appropriate old Chris Rock routine on iFilm: "How to Not Get Your Ass Kicked by the Police.")