The United States Constitution guarantees every American the right to free speech and assembly and to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. Sometimes, however, those rights conflict with an order from a law enforcement officer who commands you to do something or tries to put you under arrest. Disagreeing with the police is your right, but that right can sometimes become limited during an encounter with the police.
You’re not alone if you think that seems confusing and vague. Lawyers, law enforcement agencies, and the courts constantly wrestle with where to draw the line between lawfully disagreeing with a police officer and unlawfully resisting arrest. Let’s take a look at how they resolve this sometimes tricky question.
Your Right to Disagree With the Police
As an American, you benefit from a set of profoundly powerful and meaningful rights guaranteed to you under the United States Constitution and the constitutions of each state. A core group of those rights protects your ability to protest and disagree with actions of so-called “state actors”, such as elected officials, regulatory agencies, and the police. Without exaggeration, these rights to dissent constitute some of the most fundamental aspects of what it means to be an American.
You have the basic right to:
- Speak out about injustices and abuses by the police
- Criticize police conduct that you observe
- Refuse to speak with police, identify yourself to the police (in most cases), answer police questions, or consent to a warrantless police search
- Assemble, organize, and march in protest of police actions
- Demand that the police not unlawfully search or seize you or your property
These rights sweep broadly. Courts have upheld your right to say unkind or rude things to police officers, record pictures and video of police interactions, walk away from a non-custodial police interaction, and sue the police for using excessive force or unlawfully searching or arresting you.
When Disagreement Becomes Unlawful Resisting
However, your constitutional rights, while powerful, are not unlimited. Counterbalancing them is the practical need for police to be able do their job of enforcing the law. Intentionally getting in the way of, interfering with, or physically pushing back against police actions, even police conduct you believe to be an illegal violation of your or someone else’s rights, can expose you to criminal charges for resisting arrest or obstructing justice.
California’s Resisting Arrest Law
The California Penal Code states that it is unlawful if an individual:
“…willfully resists, delays, or obstructs any public officer, peace officer, or an emergency medical technician…of the Health and Safety Code, in the discharge or attempt to discharge any duty of his or her office or employment…”
Law enforcement officers refer to a violation of this law as “resisting arrest”, but as you can see, it actually covers a wide range of conduct that can have nothing to do with the police trying to arrest you. In California, resisting arrest is a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail and a fine of up to $1,000.
In California, you might face a resisting arrest charge for:
- Physically fighting back against the police taking you or someone else into custody
- Running from the police or trying to make it difficult for police to find you
- Stepping between a police officer and a suspect, even if you’re trying to de-escalate a situation
- Giving false information to a police officer to hide your or someone else’s identity or whereabouts
- Refusing to produce identification upon being lawfully arrested or pulled over
- Threatening a police officer or first responder in the course of doing their jobs
Again, it is possible to face charges for resisting arrest even if you believe the police were acting illegally when you resisted or interfered with them. That’s what can make resisting arrest charges so morally, ethically, and legally challenging. If a bystander tackles a police officer to stop him from using truly excessive force, they might both save the suspect’s life and expose themselves to potential resisting arrest charges.
Other Potential Criminal Charges Related to Resisting
Other responses to potentially abusive or wrongful police conduct can raise similar conflicts between what’s right and what’s lawful. For example, suppose a police officer illegally enters your house at night without a warrant under the mistaken belief that your home is a meth lab. You are well within your rights to order the officer to leave immediately. But you might face criminal charges for assault if you lay hands on the officer to make him go.
Likewise, if you swing your arm and accidentally hit a police officer who is trying to put handcuffs on you, that too might amount to an assault charge. Similarly, trying to drive away from an unlawful police encounter while an officer is standing close to your vehicle could expose you to a charge of criminal reckless driving. Conviction of any of these crimes could carry serious consequences including steep fines and imprisonment in a county jail or state prison.
And remember, these are just a few examples. The point we hope to convey by offering these illustrations is that sometimes you can be simultaneously justified in disagreeing with the police actions and criminally liable for trying to stop them. It’s not always fair, but that’s the law.
The Experienced Criminal Defense Attorneys at Dod Law, APC Can Help Protect Your Rights
Every citizen has the constitutional right to disagree with the police. Situations can even arise where resistance in the face of police misconduct becomes a moral or ethical imperative. However, no matter how right or wrong your actions, you could face resisting arrest charges in California if you intentionally interfere with police officers in the course of doing their jobs.
If you have been accused of resisting arrest in the greater San Diego area, immediately contact an experienced criminal defense attorney who can protect your rights and freedoms. Dod Law, APC, represents individuals who face resisting arrest charges after encounters with San Diego region law enforcement.