"Why Did the Police Arrest me?"
One of the questions I get asked most often is: “Why did the police arrest me? I wasn’t doing nothing! (Yes, that is a double negative)
Most of the clients that walk through my door are bitterly confused about why they were arrested. We end up spending most of our consultation-time (first consultation is free) discussing the definition of Obstruction Justice under New Jersey law. The section of the code which discusses Obstruction of Justice is 2C:29-1.
New Jersey's Obstruction of justice law 2C:29-1
Subsection (a) states: a person commits an offense if he purposely obstructs impairs a perverse administration of law or other governmental function or prevents or attempts to prevent a public servant from lawfully performing an official function by means of flight and intimidation force violence or physical interference or obstacle or by means of any independently unlawful act this section does not apply to failure to perform a legal duty other than an official duty or any other means of avoiding compliance with law without affirmative interference with governmental functions.
In my experience as a defense attorney, this section of the New Jersey criminal code is added to other charges for which the police arrested the defendant. At some point during the police officer’s investigation or arrest of the defendant, that defendant was either uncooperative, disrespectful, difficult to deal with, or simply outright obnoxious. Typically, this charge is added to strengthen the state’s case or to provide the municipal prosecutor with l leverage during plea-bargaining.
A defendant may be standing on the sidewalk watching the police perform an arrest of a stranger, when the police officer asks the defendant to leave the scene, to please walk away, or just keep going. The defendant is confused as to why he cannot watch what is happening like he does on TV and refuses to leave. Now, the situation escalates. The police officer repeats his commands telling the defendant, “You have to leave now!”
Once again, the defendant is confused and refuses to leave. The police officer’s patience is wearing thin and he gives his last and final warning. He tells the defendant to leave the scene a second time. The defendant took some criminal law classes in college and knows that he has certain Constitutional rights. He tells the officer that he can stay and watch what’s going on because he’s not doing nothing. (There it is again!)
At this point, the police officer is fed up and approaches the defendant. He tells them to turn around and place his hands behind his back. Check this out: the defendant went from being a casual observer to possibly being arrested. Matters worsen as the defendant gets upset and refuses to turn around. A second officer joins the scene and orders the defendant to turn around. Finally, the defendant grows increasingly frustrated and voices his anger. He begins to raise his voice and tells the officers that he is an upstanding citizen, with a clean record, a student, and he pays his taxes.
The police really do not care about anything the defendant has to tell him tell them. With the assistance of the second officer, the first officer is finally able to place the defendant’s hands behind his back. The defendant struggles and refuses to allow his wrists to be placed in the silver bracelets. Pursuant to the statute mentioned above, the defendant’s refusal to leave the scene when ordered to do so, and his lack of cooperation in participating in his own arrest, may constitute physical interference with performing an official act.
These scenarios are played out hundreds of times a day throughout the country and throughout the world. There are two sides to every story and these issues should always be ironed out in court. It would’ve been in the best interest of the defendant to simply heed the officers warning and walk away the first time. Then again, the only thing the defendant appeared to be doing was watching the police officers in action. Who can blame him? It’s not every day that you see the police in action.
Let’s return to our example and take it step-by-step. The police officer gave the defendant three warnings and the defendant refused to obey. Did the police officer act in a reasonable manner? From the police officer’s perspective, he may have been conducting an investigation and the defendant’s involvement at the scene was interfering with his investigation. In this example we do not know who the police officer was interviewing or what the police officer was doing, or to what extent the defendant interfered with the police officer’s duties.
There is a case on this issue. In State v Berlow (284 NJ Super 356) the Law Division discusses whether the elements the State must prove when charging a person with obstruction based on physical interference. The prosecution must show that the defendant physically interfered with the governmental officer, that the defendant acted purposely, and that the defendant knew the action would interfere with the stated governmental purpose. In our example we have no evidence that the defendant’s initial contact with the police involved physical interference. Berlow provides an excellent analysis outlining physical interference.
There have been Obstruction of Justice cases in New Jersey where the defendant was ordered to leave the scene of an arrest and refused to do so. In State v Hernandez (338 NJ Super 317) the Appellate Division decided that a defendant who admitted to cursing at police and refusing to leave the area during the arrest of his defendant’s brother, constituted a physical interference and provided sufficient factual basis to support the defendant’s guilty plea.
In another Appellate Division case from 2009 State v Rone (410 NJ Super 589) a Newark city councilmember was found guilty of obstructing justice when she refused to comply with the police officers order. Specifically, the police officer directed the defendant to move away from her nephew’s car. The police officer was conducting a traffic stop of the council member’s nephew.
The councilmember was driving her own car and after observing the traffic stop, the councilmember pulled over and interfered. The police officer told her to get going, but she refused to do so. She was subsequently arrested, charged with Obstruction of Justice and convicted. This case was appealed and affirmed in the Appellate Division.
Obstruction of Justice New Jersey must be distinguished from Resisting Arrest or Eluding a police officer under section 2C: 29-2. We will revisit the resisting arrest and eluding officer statute in another article.
For now, please understand that obstruction of justice is a very wide category. Under New Jersey case law, many different variables are taken into consideration in determining what constitute s Obstruction of Justice.
Do you have a better understanding of why clients are so confused when come to my office? Although there was no physical interference in our example, the defendant interfered with the governmental function by refusing to cooperate with the police officer’s directive. We have a case in New Jersey where the driver of the stopped vehicles refused to provide her driving credentials to a police officer. She was arrested and charged with Obstruction of Justice.
Most often, Obstruction of Justice charges in New Jersey result in a Disorderly Person’s offense. A defendant may face up to six months in jail and a $1000 fine. If the defendant’s conduct is deemed to be beyond the scope of the usual obstruction of justice, the charges may escalate to a Fourth degree Indictable Offense. If the defendant is charged with a Fourth degree Indictable Offense for Obstruction of Justice New Jersey, that defendant will face up to 18 months in jail and the court may impose a $10,000 fine.
As I tell all my clients, it is in your best interest to retain legal counsel. The facts of your case may be such that you did not behave or conduct yourself in a way that constitutes Obstruction of Justice under New Jersey law.
Mr. Peyrouton is a Criminal Defense Attorney in Hackensack, Bergen County, NJ.