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    Public Law Legal Research Blog

    PUBLIC LAW UPDATE: Silence Is Not Obstruction of Police

    Posted by Gale Burns on Thu, Apr 25, 2013 @ 10:04 AM

    April 25, 2013

    John Stone, Senior Attorney, National Legal Research Group

    A tan Infinity hit an unoccupied car in a jewelry store parking lot. The Infinity was driven by a female and carried a male passenger. The driver inspected the car she had hit, spoke briefly with her male passenger, and then drove away without leaving any information. Someone witnessed the incident, took down the Infinity's license plate number, and reported these observations to the Colorado State Patrol.

    Two troopers investigated the report, first by running a search on the license plate number of the Infinity and determining that it belonged to a Mr. Kaufman. They also checked the jewelry store's receipt records and found that Kaufman had made a purchase in the store a few minutes before the accident. When the troopers reached Kaufman by telephone, he agreed to allow them to speak with him at his residence later that day.

    At the meeting, Kaufman asked the troopers to reveal what they had learned during their investigation. They declined to do so, except to tell Kaufman the name of the owner of the damaged car. Within the troopers' hearing, Kaufman then called the victim and offered to pay for the damage incurred by the victim. The troopers continued to question Kaufman, in particular asking him who had been driving his vehicle on the day of the accident. Citing "privilege," Kaufman declined to identify the driver of his vehicle.

    Frustrated by Kaufman's silence, and after consulting a supervisor, one of the troopers presented Kaufman with a choice:  reveal the driver's identity or be arrested for obstruction of a peace officer.  Kaufman still declined to reveal the driver's identity and was arrested and taken to jail. The charges against him were eventually dropped by the local district attorney's office.

    Kaufman filed suit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging violations of his Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights. The defendant troopers moved for summary judgment on the ground of qualified immunity. In opposition to the summary judgment motion, Kaufman argued that he had been subjected to a false arrest in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights, because Colorado's obstruction statute does not criminalize a refusal to answer police questions during a consensual encounter (as opposed to questions following a valid arrest). (Kaufman eventually dropped his argument that the defendants had infringed his Fifth Amendment rights by retaliating against him for having asserted his Fifth Amendment privilege.)

    The district court granted the defendants' motion for summary judgment, concluding that there had been no false arrest, because the troopers had had probable cause to believe that Kaufman's silence, accompanied by an assertion of privilege, constituted a violation of the obstruction statute.  Kaufman v. Higgs, Civ. Act. No. 10-cv-00632-LTB-MEH, 2011 WL 3268346 (D. Colo. July 29, 2011).  In an appeal by Kaufman, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the shield afforded by the qualified immunity defense was not available to the troopers, because their arrest of Kaufman for obstruction of a peace officer was objectively unreasonable under the facts of the case and established case law.  Kaufman v. Higgs, 697 F.3d 1297 (10th Cir. 2012).

    The doctrine of qualified immunity protects government officials from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.  To defeat an assertion of qualified immunity in a summary judgment motion, a plaintiff must properly allege a deprivation of a constitutional right and must further show that the constitutional right was clearly established at the time of the violation.  However, it weighs in a plaintiff's favor that in a summary judgment motion, courts construe the facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiff as the nonmoving party.

    For false arrest claims in particular, in determining whether the law was clearly established at the time of the alleged violation—as is required to defeat an assertion of qualified immunity—courts require the § 1983 plaintiff to show that it would have been clear to a reasonable officer that probable cause was lacking under the circumstances.  In Kaufman, the troopers lacked probable cause to make an arrest for obstructing a peace officer in violation of Colorado law after Kaufman had refused to disclose the identity of the person who was driving his vehicle when it was involved in the hit‑and‑run incident. The refusal to answer questions during a consensual encounter, expressed through silence and an assertion of privilege, was not an "obstacle" to the officers' investigative efforts.

    The Colorado statute under which Kaufman was arrested provides, in pertinent part, that

    [a] person commits obstructing a peace officer . . . when, by using or threatening to use violence, force, physical interference, or an obstacle, such person knowingly obstructs, impairs, or hinders the enforcement of the penal law or the preservation of the peace by a peace officer, acting under color of his or her official authority[.]

    Colo. Rev. Stat. § 18-8-104(1)(a) (emphasis added).  The troopers conceded that Kaufman's conduct did not amount to the use or threatened use of "violence," "force," or "physical interference," leaving only an argument, rejected by the appellate court, that there was probable cause to believe that Kaufman had used or threatened to use an "obstacle" that impeded them from carrying out their duties.

    An "obstacle" is "a thing that blocks one's way or prevents or hinders progress." Oxford New English Dictionary 1211 (3d ed.).  Silence accompanied by an explanation of the basis for that silence does not obstruct anything, and, in fact, it is hardly "a thing" at all. It is a null action that simply maintains the status quo.  Kaufman's silence did nothing to the investigative efforts of the police, allowing them to continue unimpeded. They were able to continue putting questions to Kaufman, they could have sought out other members of his family for questioning, and they could have even sought to compel Kaufman to answer their inquiries with a grand jury subpoena.

    Kaufman's cause of action under § 1983 was supported not only by the language in Colorado's statute on obstruction of peace officers but also by a precedent from the Supreme Court of Colorado interpreting that law.  Dempsey v. People, 117 P.3d 800 (Colo. 2005).  That court's interpretation of the statute confirmed the proper understanding of the word "obstacle."  The court defined the terms "obstacle" or "physical interference" in the obstruction statute, concluding that "[t]he obstacle or physical interference may not be merely verbal opposition."  Id. at 810.  Furthermore, the court noted, "mere remonstration does not constitute obstruction."  Id. at 811.  "Mere verbal opposition" to the police does not suffice; instead, "a combination of statements and acts by the defendant, including threats of physical interference or interposition of an obstacle," is required.  Id.  The only relevant conduct in Kaufman was Kaufman's refusal to answer questions and a very brief explanation for that refusal.  Because words alone are not enough for obstruction, it followed a fortiori that silence is not enough.  Kaufman, 697 F.3d at 1302.  Kaufman's § 1983 claim was reinstated and sent back to the district court for further proceedings.
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