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Smart-mouthing police not a crime, jury finds

August 7, 2011

by Tamara Barak Aparton

San Francisco − A young man who responded to a police officer’s harassment with a profane zinger was found not guilty on July 22 of five misdemeanors, San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi announced.

Police impunity is the rule in the ‘hood, except when it’s challenged by the staff attorneys in the office of San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi.
Jurors deliberated over four hours before acquitting San Francisco resident Chris Christopher, 22, of delaying or obstructing an officer with threat of violence, battery on a police officer and three counts of resisting arrest.

Christopher is the second public defender client acquitted this week of resisting arrest after police officers used excessive force. On Wednesday, 35-year-old Benjamin King was found not guilty of felony assault with a deadly weapon on an officer and misdemeanor resisting arrest. More about that case can be found at http://bit.ly/riM2UN.

Christopher, who had no criminal record, was arrested April 9, 2010, at Newhall Street and La Salle Avenue in San Francisco’s Bayview District, said his attorney, Deputy Public Defender Erin Haney.

Christopher had been sitting in a legally parked car with a family friend when his mother spotted the pair and pulled up in her vehicle to chat. A police officer approached Christopher’s mother, who was parked illegally, and asked for her identification. Instead of ticketing her, however, the officer moved on to the legally parked car to question Christopher, who had committed no infraction, Haney said.

The officer asked Christopher his name, but expressed disbelief when the young man answered honestly with “Chris Christopher.” When he asked again, an annoyed Christopher shot back, “What if I tell you it’s Fuck You?”

“It wasn’t respectful, but it was well within Mr. Christopher’s First Amendment rights,” Haney said. “There’s nothing in the penal code about having a smart mouth. In fact, citizens in this nation are encouraged to speak out against government harassment and oppression. The First Amendment protects that right, even when the speech is offensive.”

The officer became angry and a verbal argument ensued, Haney said. Police claimed Christopher reached under the seat and said: “How do you know I don’t have a gun? Cops get shot all the time.” However, witnesses at the nearly two-day trial testified Christopher never threatened the officer.

“Mr. Christopher knows that suggesting he has a gun and reaching for it is a death wish,” Haney said. Additionally, witnesses testified to Mr. Christopher’s reputation for peace-keeping and nonviolence in the community.

When police pushed Christopher’s mother and family friend out of the way, the young man exited the car and yelled at officers to take their hands off his mother. He then complied with police orders to get back into the vehicle.

“Several officers then extracted him from the car by choking him while his mother watched and screamed, ‘That’s my son. Stop it. He can’t breathe,’” Haney said.

Jurors voted not guilty after Haney argued that police had no right to detain Christopher, used excessive force and were not in lawful performance.

“This is your city,” Haney told jurors during her closing argument. “Mr. Christopher has the same rights you have. He has the same rights your son has. If this constitutes lawful performance, when then can Mr. Christopher ever walk out of his house and not be subject to police action? Mr. Christopher does not live in a police state. In the Bayview, you have the same rights as you do in Pacific Heights.”

“Mr. Christopher does not live in a police state. In the Bayview, you have the same rights as you do in Pacific Heights.”

Adachi said this week’s two acquittals – the other of a Black jaywalker outside the Powell Street BART Station who struck back instinctively after police struck him so hard on the knee with a billy club that it broke and a fragment stuck in his hand – show that San Francisco juries will act to place limits on the authority of police.

“Mr. Christopher was rightfully exonerated in a case that was overcharged and over-exaggerated. While using foul language in conversing with a police officer may not be polite, the jury found that it doesn’t justify five misdemeanor charges,” Adachi said.

Tamara Barak Aparton, communications and policy assistant in the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, can be reached at Tamara.Aparton@sfgov.org.

 

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