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Law enforcement against common sense (and, a case study in how media bias operates)

When people talk about media bias, they are generally referring to one of two things: (1) media lies and fabrications which misstate the objective facts and circumstances of a given situation; or (2) the media's presentation (or omission) of certain facts or information, which, when taken as a whole, present a biased or incomplete picture of a given situation.

Straight-out lies are rather rare. Biased presentation of information is ubiquitous.

Consider the Advocate's story yesterday describing the arrest of Michael Picard, who was protesting the arrest of a friend by holding a sign outside of the Stamford courthouse (and later a nearby police station) saying "F*** Free Speech - Stamford PD" (the actual sign included the written expletive). From the story, we learn the following things about the protester (and another friend of Picard's who was also protesting):

  • Picard "described himself as a “liberty activist” and supports the open carrying of guns and he disapproves of checkpoints";

  • "[His friend] is also an open carry and anti-checkpoint activist," and "sometimes [] openly wear[s] a gun in a holster with an oversize Uncle Sam hat on his head"; and

  • Picard "has filed a federal lawsuit against the troopers, who he recorded allegedly discussing how to concoct charges against him."

From this information, the reader is pushed to conclude the following: these two "activists" are really just anti-governmental ideologues who have a vendetta against any law enforcement efforts to protect the public.

That may be true. But it is hardly relevant to the inquiry of whether or not they were exercising their constitutional rights in protesting outside of the police station.

* * *

Let's talk now about what the article declined to explore. Do you know who is not even questioned in this story? Stamford State's Attorney Richard Colangelo, who allegedly blessed officer Fontneau's arresting a man for peacefully holding a sign outside of a court house because "[he] found the sign to be offensive." The Advocate doesn't even indicate it reached out to Mr. Colangelo to understand his legal basis for condoning such an arrest.

Well, I have some questions for Mr. Colangelo. Hopefully, the Advocate's next story will have some answers.

The article indicates Mr. Picard was arrested for "disorderly conduct." Connecticut state law defines disorderly conduct as follows:

[W]hen, with intent to cause inconvenience, annoyance or alarm, or recklessly creating a risk thereof, [a] person: (1) Engages in fighting or in violent, tumultuous or threatening behavior; or (2) by offensive or disorderly conduct, annoys or interferes with another person; or (3) makes unreasonable noise; or (4) without lawful authority, disturbs any lawful assembly or meeting of persons; or (5) obstructs vehicular or pedestrian traffic; or (6) congregates with other persons in a public place and refuses to comply with a reasonable official request or order to disperse; or (7) commits simple trespass . . . .

Conn. Gen. Stat. Ann. § 53a-182.

Which subsection above was Mr. Picard arrested under? According to the story, he was peacefully standing outside of the police station and was not trespassing or otherwise somewhere he was not lawfully allowed to be. Subsection (2)? Subsection (6)?

If subsection (2), was Picard's "predominant intent [] to cause inconvenience, annoyance or alarm, rather than to exercise his constitutional rights?", as is required by Connecticut's jurisprudence to uphold a conviction for disorderly conduct? State v. Indrisano, 228 Conn. 795, 809 (1994). Furthermore, was Picard's "conduct [] grossly offensive, under contemporary community standards, to a person who actually overhears or sees it, disturbs or impedes the lawful activity of that person?", as is likewise required by Indrisano? Id. at 819.

If subsection (6), does Colangelo truly believe that a law which requires congregating citizens to obey a "reasonable" request to disburse is constitutional? Doesn't it violate our First Amendment right to peaceful assembly and freedom of speech? What makes a reasonable request? In practice, wouldn't a reasonable request simply be whatever the officer decided in that moment? How is a citizen supposed to know ahead of time what a "reasonable? request is? Doesn't this uncertainty violate the Due Process Clause of the Constitution because "reasonable" is unconstitutionally vague?

Independent of the answers to the above, wouldn't it have just been easier to ignore two men holding one sign outside the police station and wait for them to go home? Shouldn't law enforcement officials not be so easily offended? Is it worth the police department's time to make such a petty arrest? Is it worth or our taxpayers' money to fight the lawsuit which is sure to come from Mr. Picard for unlawful arrest and violating his civil rights? How much overtime for law enforcement did taxpayers pay in the last fiscal year? Isn't it self-defeating when a police department accused of violating free speech arrests a man while he was exercising his freedom of speech? Doesn't this arrest this needlessly raise the profile of the protesters law enforcement were trying to shut down? Have you ever heard of the Streisand Effect?

These are not hard questions. But both Colangelo and Fontneau answered each one incorrectly. Common sense would have simply been to ignore the unwelcome, if inappropriate sign.

* * *

I have one final thought on why it's so imperative that law enforcement exercise restraint when dealing with the petty annoyances they often face in their line of duty.

Mr. Picard appears to be unusually devoted to his cause. He has already hired counsel, and if he fights the charge of disorderly conduct, is likely to have the charges dropped.

Most citizens are not so dedicated or fortunate. The law is not always easy to understand or navigate. I am trained as a lawyer, and it still took me hours to find the legal arguments indicating this arrest would likely be thrown out by an honest judge.

Most citizens, when faced with similar situations, will likely feel compelled to comply with whatever the government demands of them because they lack either the resources or familiarity to vindicate their rights. This is an injustice.

Law enforcement must intelligently exercise discretion to limit such injustices to the greatest extent possible. They did not do so in the case of Mr. Picard. Let's hope this is a learning experience and they won't make the same mistakes next time.

#StamfordPD #RichardColangelo #JonFontneau #MichaelPicard