Peter Tragos is a Florida personal injury attorney who represents clients in cases such as wrongful death, medical malpractice, and car accidents.
More than five years after a disturbing video first raised questions regarding the use of excessive force by D.C.’s law enforcement, the District’s legal definition of what constitutes “assaulting a police officer'” has finally been narrowed.
The video, which went viral in 2011, showed D.C. transit police roughly dragging a homeless man named Dwight Harris out of his wheelchair. The shocking footage shows two officers bodily lifting Harris out of his chair before dropping him face-first onto a metal sidewalk grate.
Harris was initially charged with assaulting a police officer, which seems patently ridiculous in light of the arrest footage. While the charges were dropped in the ensuing public outcry, under the previously broad statutory definition of assault they may have resulted in a conviction. Under the prior law, one who merely, “impedes, intimidates, or interferes with a law enforcement officer,” could be found guilty of assault. Mary Cheh’s bill, signed into law in March, greatly narrows that definition.
Harris’ videotaped arrest not only drew the public’s attention to the questionable use of force by D.C. law enforcement, but also prompted a groundbreaking joint investigation into the numerous police assault cases that are routinely prosecuted in the District. WAMU teamed with the Investigative Reporting Workshop to analyze two years of court records relating to roughly 2,000 charges of assaulting a police officer.
The final report and audio documentary, titled “Assault On Justice,” made clear that black residents were being charged disproportionately with the crime of assaulting police, often without being charged for any other underlying offense.
Although roughly half of the District’s population are black, 90% of the charges brought during the period examined by the investigation team were against black residents. Further, those accused of assaulting police required medical treatment more often than the officers themselves.
The report also compared the rate at which the charge of assaulting a police officer was brought in D.C., finding that the District uses this charge nearly four times more often than other comparably-sized urban areas.
Together, the results raised serious questions regarding the possibility that law enforcement was taking advantage of the overly broad statutory definition to cover up instances involving the unnecessary use of force. The findings were so damning that Police Chief Cathy Lanier herself urged reforming the definition of this crime, a change that has finally come to fruition.
The Police and Criminal Discovery Reform Amendment Act of 2015, first introduced by Ward 3 D.C. Councilmember Mary Cheh last year, reforms many elements of criminal procedure in the District. Notably, it removes the prior broad language found in the definition of the misdemeanor offense of assaulting a police officer, which many felt would be more appropriate to a charge of resisting arrest.
Under the previous definition of section 22-405, D.C. Code, anyone who, “without justifiable and excusable cause, assaults, resists, opposes, impedes, intimidates, or interferes with a law enforcement officer,” could end up spending 180 days in jail, paying a $1,000 fine, or both. The new bill narrowed this definition by creating two separate misdemeanor offenses for assaulting a police officer, while keeping the same consequences for a conviction.
Under the new law, the charge of assaulting a police officer can be brought against any person who, “knowingly assaults a police officer.” In addition, the bill added language stating that a person, “may not intentionally resist a lawful arrest.”
While both definitions seem simplistic, the clarity provided by the amended law substantially narrows the range of behaviors that could result in a misdemeanor conviction. The inclusion of the modifier in the prohibition on resisting a lawful arrest places some burden onto law enforcement to ensure that there is a valid reason for stopping with a citizen to begin with.
Under the prior language, any interference with an officer engaged “in the performance of their official duties” met the definition of assault. As the footage of Harris’ arrest shows, the realm of what some officers consider to be within their official duties may require further clarification.
Borderstan contributor and law firm sponsor Price Benowitz LLP. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the author — our contributor and law firm sponsor Price Benowitz LLP — and do not necessarily reflect the views of Borderstan.