The Crime of Committing 'Contempt of Cop'

On July 16, 2011, Pajamas Media published my article titled "Contempt of Cop: What's The Law Say About Photographing Police." In that article, I provided this definition:

"Contempt of cop" is a play on words of the common legal term “contempt of court.” The latter refers to a judge holding someone responsible for conduct -- usually in the courtroom -- that is disrespectful or disruptive, that reflects blatant contempt for the law, the judge and his lawful authority. The former is similar. It refers to a cop’s reaction to the same kind of behavior by a citizen in their presence. In the best sense of the term, an officer’s attention will be attracted by someone who goes out of their way to irrationally and unnecessarily antagonize a police officer in a public setting. In such circumstances, it would be foolish for a police officer to allow that person to go unpunished lest their behavior encourage others to insult, even attack other officers.

Contempt of cop also applies to the worst instincts some police officers develop. In those cases, officers become “badge-heavy,” they begin to take matters personally. They become hypersensitive to any insult, real or imagined. They don’t consider the elements of the law, they take offense, act first and make up the rest later. Such officers are unpredictable and dangerous, not only to the public, but to their fellow officers who know that the bad will of the public is cumulative. Abuse the citizenry enough, and the officers who suffer for it — and some will suffer — will often be professionals, men and women of good will undeserving of their fates.

Since that article, another example of contempt of cop has arisen, and it involves the most common -- and often the only -- contact police have with the public: traffic stops.

According to Fox News, in December 2009, Erich Campbell noticed a police officer obviously running traffic radar parked near the Tampa International Airport. Campbell committed an egregious act of contempt of cop: he flashed his headlights at oncoming traffic to warn them of the speed trap. He was stopped and given a citation for "improper flashing of high-beams." The cost? $101.00.

There is a happy ending to this morality tale: the citation was eventually dismissed and Campbell filed a class-action lawsuit against the state of Florida.

"Because the state was rolling the dice (with me)," he said. "They figured most people aren’t going to challenge it, and I think it’s about time someone actually did."

Campbell estimates 2,600 other “highbeam-helpers” received summonses between 2005 and 2010. He says most simply chose to pay their fines.

"Someone has to stand up," he says, referring to the tickets as a “huge money-maker” for the state, not to mention a "blatant violation of the right to free speech."

Campbell characterized his suit as a free speech issue, saying that his flashing headlights were a means of communication with other drivers.

Thomas Ruskin, a former NYPD detective and current "police advocate," begs to differ:

He has a definite different interpretation of the U.S. Constitution than I do. ... And than most members of law enforcement. ...

It's [flashing high beams] illegal because you're warning someone. It's the same thing as saying, "run, here comes the cops," you're obstructing a cop from doing his lawful duty. ...

He is aiding law-breakers. He is warning people who are speeding to slow down. His intent is to impede the police.

Captain Mark Brown of the Florida Highway Patrol sees things differently still:

We have told our people to stop issuing citations on that pending the outcome of the litigation.

This might seem to be a minor, even technical, quibble relating to an obscure law, but it touches on two matters of vital importance to the public: the relationship between the police and the public, and unfettered police discretion, AKA, contempt of cop.

Professional police officers understand that there are so many traffic laws -- many broadly written -- it is virtually impossible to drive without unintentionally breaking one or more of them. Understanding that the only personal contact the majority of the public will ever have with police officers is through a traffic stop, smart officers avoid hyper-technical enforcement of traffic laws, particularly the more obscure laws. They also avoid stretching laws to fit circumstances for which they were not intended, Erich Campbell's citation being a case in point.

Officers can, if they wish, cite citizens for traveling two or three miles per hour over the posted speed limit. They can cite people for having a taillight out rather than issuing a warning, even though they realize the driver had no idea they were breaking the law. Smart, professional officers simply don't do this sort of thing because they know it's not worth it. There are more than enough drivers blatantly speeding, running stop signs, and committing a wide variety of unmistakable violations. Citing people doing their best to obey the law is foolish and unprofessional. It angers citizens -- including everyone the cited driver tells, and they will tell many others -- and greatly reduces respect for the police and the law. The negative effect most related to this particular case is that it does not, in any way, enhance traffic safety, which is the ostensible reason for the existence of traffic laws. How can those doing their best to drive safely do better?