“You might beat the rap, but you won’t beat the ride.”
That’s what she told me. She was right, of course. I was being stubborn, doing something I normally advise people not to do: resting on my rights and the fact that I was doing absolutely nothing illegal. So like a mule, I stayed put on the corner, doing nothing and minding my own business.
It all started when I decided to go see a friend’s show down in Carrolton this past Friday. I planned on drinking, so just to be safe, I took the streetcar down St. Charles but unfortunately, I used the last of my cash for the streetcar. When I arrived at the bar, there was a ten dollar cover.
I mused for a moment about what to do when I noticed the doorman entering with somebody who was inquiring about paying the cover via credit card. Accordingly, I went in an asked if I could just add the cover to a bar tab, as I had done at many other establishments. The doorman asked the owner, who shook his head. I retreated for a moment while the doorman spoke to somebody else, and then went back to complain and ask if I could just pay a little extra to use a card.
Before I knew it the doorman (who could now be better described as a bouncer) was literally pushing me out the door with his massive, distended stomach. The owner followed in tow. Once outside, I accused the bouncer of assaulting me without warning before I’d even been asked to leave. “I didn’t see that,” the owner responded. “All I saw was him trying to leave and you were getting in his way.”
I said that was ridiculous. Then the owner told me to do something he had no right to tell me to do: “Get off my corner.
His corner? The last time I checked, sidewalks belong to the City of New Orleans. It’s public property. “Louisiana jurisprudence has repeatedly held that sidewalks are owned by the City.” Houssiere v. Lafayette Ins. Co., 559 So. 2d 903, 904 (La. App. 4 Cir. 1990).
Accordingly, I told this Mutt and Jeff team that I was on a public sidewalk, not blocking pedestrian traffic, and thus I would not be leaving (See? A stubborn bastard, I am). The owner then told one of his employees to call 911. In the meantime, a nearby patron told me I’d better leave before the police arrived. I told her that I wasn’t breaking any laws, to which she replied, “Well, you might beat the rap, but you won’t beat the ride.”
Later, the police arrived. Five of them, surrounding me. They told me to leave, to which I responded that I was breaking no laws and shouldn’t have to leave. Then one of the officers, Officer Terry Baham, got in my face and started yelling at me. I didn’t back down from my position and he said he would be arresting me for disturbing the peace by “tumultuous conduct.”
I protested that I hadn’t broken any law. He said “tell it to the judge.”
Officer Baham then slapped the cuffs on me and put me in a patrol car in full public view. I was taken to Orleans Parish Prison and processed. I was patted down and my bag was searched and seized. It took a few hours but I went through booking and posted bail via an ATM card. I was released in the wee hours near Tulane and Broad and took a cab home.
I was charged with two misdemeanor offenses – disturbing the peace and public drunkenness. I am clearly guilty of neither.
To have “disturbed the peace,” I would have had to acted in a “tumultuous manner” to where somebody was “placed in fear of safety of his life, limb or health” or to where “the property of any person is placed in danger[.]” See: New Orleans Municipal Code Sec. 54-403. Nobody claimed I made any threats, physically attacked anybody or placed anybody’s property in danger. The only physical attack was upon me by the bouncer, and I was standing by a street sign on the sidewalk. This charge was bogus.
The other charge was even more silly – public drunkenness. I was not drunk and was never given any sobriety tests whatsoever. In any event, it is not necessarily illegal to wander around drunk in New Orleans (if it were, we’d all be in the slammer at some time or another). Rather, it is only illegal to be drunk in public when a person is intoxicated “to the degree that he may endanger himself or other persons or property.” See: New Orleans Municipal Code Sec. 54-405. There was no evidence that I was a danger to myself or anybody else. I was just standing on a sidewalk.
So did the bar owner even believe I was guilty of a crime? Actually, no. I later contacted him and he told me point blank that he didn’t believe I’d committed any crime, but that the charges levied against me were “between [me] and the NOPD.”
So what was I really guilty of? The answer is simple: contempt of cop. The police told me to leave the sidewalk to pacify the bar and then got in my face about it to physically intimidate me when I told them I wouldn’t move because I was committing no crime. When I still refused, Officer Baham blew his stack and arrested me on bogus charges.
This is actually a very common occurrence nationwide. People who disagree with the police and stand up for their rights are arrested for “disturbing the peace” because police see it as a catch-all for any behavior they disapprove of, including the audacity to disobey their unlawful orders. Sometimes it’s just a matter of smarting off to an officer which, though unwise, is not a crime.
In the end, the truth is that I usually advise people to do what the police say even if they have no legal right to make the demand because there’s minimal recourse for this type of petty abuse of power. I didn’t win a battle here. Officer Baham will no doubt continue arresting anybody who he perceives as disrespecting him. Jerk bar owners will continue to call the police out at the drop of a hat. Nothing will change and I’ll have gone through a great deal of trouble with nothing to show for it.
Call it a personality flaw. I won’t be made to do anything based on threats of illegal government action. I just wish that the police did their jobs properly and this wasn’t an issue.
DISCLAIMER: The observations and opinions expressed in this column are those of Owen Courrèges alone and are his sole responsibility. The owner of the bar in question was contacted regarding this column but declined an offer to review its contents before it was published.
Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.