The Second Circuit Court of Appeals recently ordered a new trial for a man (“Plaintiff”) who brought a false arrest claim against the City of New York (“City”) after he was arrested on an obstructing governmental administration charge. Plaintiff had been sitting and eating in a park to which access was limited to people with a child or a stroller. Police approached Plaintiff and asked him whether he had children with him, but Plaintiff refused to answer. The police officer then “took [Plaintiff’s] Jell-O and threw it out” to get his attention (seriously, you can’t make this stuff up….), at which point Plaintiff began yelling at the officers and was subsequently arrested for disorderly conduct and obstructing. Plaintiff brought a false arrest claim pro se, alleging the police lacked probable cause, which the jury decided in favor of the City.
On appeal, the Second Circuit ordered a new trial because the jury instructions were incorrect and could have affected the outcome of the trial. At trial, the judge had instructed that while refusal to answer questions by itself is not obstruction, “whether refusal to acknowledge or respond to police questions is considered obstruction... depends on the totality of the circumstances.” The Second Circuit detailed how this was incorrect, stating that New York law requires defendant to have interfered with police activity through either “(1) intimidation, (2) physical force or interference, or (3) any independently unlawful act.” Purely verbal interference, or the lack thereof as is the case here, may not satisfy the physical component under Penal Law §195.05. The court further held that the basis for its ruling was rooted in the right to remain silent, as this guarantees that Plaintiff’s “constitutionally protected silence could not constitute any element of the crime of obstructing governmental administration, even if such silence interfered with the officers’ attempt to investigate.” The Court thus ordered a new trial.
A related point of interest, the Court also held that “obstruction of governmental administration cannot rest upon refusal to provide identification” either, something that is good to know in your everyday life.
The case is Uzoukwu v. City of New York and can be found here: http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-2nd-circuit/1717374.html