In Washington, it is a crime to willfully hinder, delay, or obstruct a law enforcement officer. However, does this law run afoul of the First Amendment? A recent Washington State Supreme Court case, State v. E.J.J., examines this issue. The defendant challenged a juvenile court conviction for obstructing a law enforcement officer under RCW 9A.76.020(1), on grounds under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This is a timely case given the recent national attention paid to police conduct.
The facts involve an altercation between E.J.J. (at the time a minor) and police. Police were called to E.J.J.’s residence in order to deal with E.J.J.’s intoxicated sister (who also was a minor at the time). Upon arrival, the police escorted his sister outside in order to calm her down. E.J.J. became agitated when he saw an officer pull out what he thought be a nightstick. The officers told him to go back inside, but the situation escalated quickly. After several requests, E.J.J. finally went back to the house, but he stood in the open doorway and continued to yell at the police. The police continually ordered him to shut the door, but E.J.J. refused, and continued to shout. One officer went over and closed the door multiple times, but E.J.J. kept opening it. During this time, E.J.J. was yelling obscenities at the officers, and the officers were apparently yelling back. Eventually, E.J.J. was arrested for obstructing a law enforcement officer.
E.J.J. was convicted of the charge, and the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s decision. The case made its way to the Supreme Court of Washington, where E.J.J., the petitioner, challenged the obstruction charge on grounds under the First Amendment. The Supreme Court found that E.J.J.’s words were protected, and therefore reversed the conviction and dismissed the case.
In this case, much of the Supreme Court’s decision hinged on whether the petitioner engaged in conduct or just used verbal language. The statutory definition of obstruction is rather ambiguous, as it reads “A person is guilty of obstructing a law enforcement officer if the person willfully hinders, delays, or obstructs any law enforcement officer in his or her official powers or duties.” RCW 9A.76.020(1). However, the Supreme Court looked to the statutory language and prior, applicable case-law, and determined that conduct is required for an obstruction charge, not just language. If the charge was based solely on E.J.J.’s words, then it would violate the First Amendment. However, if he had engaged in some form of conduct the conviction would stand.
The State naturally argued, and the Court of Appeals agreed, that E.J.J. engaged in conduct by approaching the officers while they were trying to calm his sister down and by refusing to obey the requests to return to the house and close the door.
The Supreme Court thoroughly examined the facts of the case, breaking down E.J.J.’s actions during the altercation. Systematically, the Court went against the Court of Appeals’ interpretation of the facts. First, the Court decided that the petitioner’s movements towards the officers did not constitute “conduct” under the obstruction statute. He was merely walking towards the police. E.J.J. did not physically interfere with or touch anyone at the scene, nor did he make any “threatening” movements.
Previously, the Court of Appeals concluded that E.J.J.’s presence at the scene escalated the situation, but the Supreme Court shot down this argument. The Court determined that E.J.J. had every right to stand on his own property, “provided that he did not physically interfere with police.” Furthermore, there was no connection between E.J.J.’s speech or presence and anything that specifically resulted from it, i.e. he did not escalate the situation.
The Court of Appeals also held that E.J.J committed obstruction when he refused to leave the scene, hurled abuses on the officers, and refused to close the door to his home. The Supreme Court, however, said that this exchange was too intertwined with his protected speech. The Court of Appeals also found that the fact that an officer had to escort E.J.J. back to the home was sufficient evidence of obstruction. The Supreme Court found that this was a minor delay of no import. “In the First Amendment context, we must be vigilant to distinguish between obstruction and inconvenience.”
The Supreme Court also noted that obstruction statutes could not be used to limit citizens’ rights to express verbal criticism at police officers. The Court cited to a U.S. Supreme Court case, City of Houston v. Hill, 482 U.S. 451, 454, 107 S.Ct. 2502, 96 L.Ed.2d 398 (1987), by noting that “[t]he freedom of individuals verbally to oppose or challenge police action without thereby risking arrest is one of the principal characteristics by which we distinguish a free nation from a police state.”
Chief Justice Madsen wrote an interesting concurring opinion. According to her, the evidence did show that E.J.J. engaged in obstructive conduct. However, Justice Madsen agreed with the majority’s reversal mainly because “the crime of obstruction is used disproportionately to arrest people of color.” To counteract this, she proposed that the court add a common law requirement to the obstructing statute: the State cannot meet its burden of proof for an obstruction charge if “the officer’s conduct substantially contributed to the escalation of the circumstances that resulted in the arrest for obstruction . . . .” This common law requirement would help ensure citizens’ constitutionally-protected rights, privileges, and immunities were not deprived by law enforcement. Applying this to the case at hand, Justice Madsen found that the officer in this case unnecessarily escalated the situation with E.J.J. The majority, however, balked at the proposal for a new common law requirement.
It will be interesting to see how this case could be applied to future situations. It is clear-cut that words do not equal conduct. E.J.J. merely used words, his physical conduct was minimal, and he was not the focus of the police investigation. But would the Supreme Court have come to the same conclusion with a slightly different set of facts? What if the altercation occurred in a public place, instead of at the defendant’s home? What if the defendant was an unruly passenger of a pulled-over vehicle? In any case, this case should hopefully help clarify what constitutes the crime of obstruction of a law enforcement officer.