Apr 302012
 

Owen Courreges

“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.

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  • http://twitter.com/ColiseumSquare Louis Hern

    You give the name of the moron cop. Why don’t you give the name of the bar and its owner, who did you just as much wrong as the police?

    • UptownMessenger

      Louis – I asked Owen not to identify the bar or the owner until i have more information about the situation. What the bar owner actually “did” is less clear at this point than what the officer did, ie, took Owen to jail.

      • http://twitter.com/ColiseumSquare Louis Hern

        “The owner then told one of his employees to call 911.” Once you verify that statement you really must identify the bar. My concern is that you may be protecting the name of an advertiser or some local legend club owner.

        • Owen Courreges

          Louis,

          Actually, I heard that myself. I don’t know if they actually did call 911 or a non-emergency line. But the five cops tend to make me think it was a 911 call, and a bogus one at that.

          It isn’t an advertiser, although he is a well-known club owner. However, this is a small website and said club owner is a known jerk who is willing to lie to get what he wants, so I understand Rob’s reluctance to mention him.

        • UptownMessenger

          This is a valid concern, Louis, but for what it’s worth I hadn’t heard of the man prior to Owen’s column.

  • Octavia Al

    Owen:

    Why not sue Officer Baham for False Arrest?

    • Owen Courreges

      Al,

      I’m considering my options at this point against both the bar and Baham.

      • Scout

        Your first option should be to contact the Independent Police Monitor’s Office (IPM) and make a complaint about this officers conduct. You could alternatively or simultaneously make a complaint to the NOPD Public Integrity Bureau. The IPM website has more information.

        • Tim

          Be careful. Yes, the right thing to do would be to file a complaint. But rest assured, if you go down that road….The NOPD will/may get their revenge. I’ve been down that road…..And trust me, they find ways to arrest you. It’s incredible but true. They will tag you and arrest you for B.S.

  • Eclipse7sun

    what pricks! sue the bouncer for assault; if bar accepts credit cards for drinks, check to see if there is regulation prohibiting them from discrimination as to what can be paid for with credit card; sue city for failure to train ignorant cops.

  • capt steve

    A bar has the right to refuse service to anyone. Obviously its not that big of a deal if you refuse to give the bars name. Also, that police officer gave you a chance to walk. That is more than most people get in this city. You have to realize, no one calls NOPD because they are having a good time. If you dealt with the negativity that they deal with everyday. you also would be a miserable person, who takes their frustrations out on everyone. Innocent or guilty.

    • Owen Courreges

      Capt Steve,

      Oh, I agree that a bar has a right to refuse service (they don’t have the right to assault people, though, and they can certainly treat customers rudely). And yes, I was given a chance to walk, but Officer Baham had no authority to insist that I walk. He could have just told the bar owner that he didn’t have cause to proceed further and left. He chose, instead, to make an illegal arrest.

      What you seem to be attempting to offer is a explanation, but not an excuse. It doesn’t exonerate either Baham or the bar owner. Perhaps they do deal with jerks day-in and day-out. So what? That’s their job. If they can’t put that aside, they need to find other work.

    • Owen Courreges

      Capt. Steve,

      Also, as a lifelong fan of Dragnet and Jack Webb, I think this quote (from Sgt. Joe Friday to an officer who backhanded a civilian who tore his shirt and called him a “pig”) is quite apt:

      “Here’s the key to this, Hillier: When you lost control at 2 a.m. this morning out there on Garland Street, you laid another bruise on every man who wears a uniform and a badge. Your newspaper story will give credence to those whose sole aim is to kick authority right in the groin. And you’ve shaken the confidence of those who believe in order with justice.”

      In other words, police misconduct begets negativity towards police and makes it more difficult for good cops to do their jobs.

    • nolatilla

      Capt Steve,

      If a cop breaks the law he deserves to be punished as much as any civilian. It’s just that attitude of protecting dirty cops like Baham that perpetuates both police misconduct and the general lack of public respect for officers, because everyone knows that cops don’t have to give a crap about the actual laws.

    • Julia Smith

      The police should not get to arrest someone because they are a miserable person, nor should they get to take out their frustrations on everyone, innocent or guilty. No crime had been committed, no arrest was warranted, no pun intended.

  • Skip

    Bouncers in this city are jerks. I’ve seen them act like jerks to myself, my friends, and tourists. They need a lesson in manners and friendliness, not intimidation. POST THE NAME OF THE BAR!!! I’ll never go there again!!

    • capt steve

      100% percent correct. There is always an exception, just like a bad police officer. Most bouncers take there $9 an hour cash job way to seriously.

  • Jiang Kuang

    I would have walked away, but I kudos to Owen for taking a stand for citizen rights and taking this to the end, even if that meant getting arrested. But I have to agree with others here that besides taking legal action against the police, the bar in question needs to be outed. May I suggest asking them to respond in their own post?

    • Owen Courreges

      Jiang,

      I told the owner that he could respond in the comments before the article posted.

      • Jiang Kuang

        Very classy Owen, more than he deserved.

  • Owen Courreges

    Jean-Paul,

    Actually, yes. I just have a real, real problem with government abuse of power. It makes it easier for it to happen when people consent to it, which was what Baham expected me to do. I might regret the consequences dearly, but not standing up for my right to remain on a public sidewalk.

  • Owen Courreges

    Twangster,

    I usually do carry cash, but here I had just used the last of it. I could have gone to an ATM, but ATM fees are ridiculous here. Between the fee charged by the ATM’s bank and the fee charged by my bank, I’d be paying around $4 to get $10, which is a 40% fee. I was just asking the bar to make it easier for me like other music venues do (DBA’s and Blue Nile, for example, are very accomodating with this).

    A few other Yelp reviews of this bar complain about the cover charge, so it isn’t just me. A cover charge is inconvenient enough without being snotty and unaccomodating about it.

    • Zimpelton

      Owen, We really take for granted how cheap live music is here. I think a $10 cover charge is fully justified if the band sees most of it. The friend you went to see perform that night could tell you whether or not that was the case. Now, if he/she felt shortchanged then that would tell you even more about that bar owner’s M.O.

      As for ATM fees, they do seem high, but the alternative is to not have access at all to cash. Whenever I encounter an exorbitant fee at an ATM I usually withdraw $100 or more so that the vig feels less painful.

      • Owen Courreges

        Zimpelton,

        I agree, although I think it’s usually a better idea to do something other than a cover, like a drink surcharge, if possible. The problem with the ATM fee, though, is that you’re really only withdrawing the money for the cover. Otherwise, you could hunt down one of your own bank’s ATMs and pay nothing to withdraw as much as you want. Thus, even if you withdraw more, you’re really still paying that surcharge just for the cover. That’s a good reason why music venues should allow you to add it to your card (and in my experience, most do).

        • Zimpelton

          Owen, Veering off-topic I realize, but I heard from musicians that the entry fee long ago became the preferred way to “cover” their cost (hence the name) because it was easier for them to keep a tally of the people paying to see them than of the drinks those people were buying, thus better assuring that they would be fairly and duly compensated.

  • Tim

    Owen, welcome to the NOPD. Laws and our constitution means nothing when dealing with the NOPD.
    I just want to add, naming the cop sounds like the right thing to do…but those guys have their ways of getting their revenge. And be careful about making a formal complaint against the cop. I made that mistake years ago…..and like clockwork, I was arrested every year for BS. Things like not showing up to traffic court when I know that I showed up and paid the ticket. The system stinks and the NOPD can be worse than a syndicated crime organization.

    • Christin

      “…can be worse than a syndicated crime organization”! Helloooo…where do ya think they *learned* their tactics?!

  • Tony

    You are lucky they did not assault you and charge you with resisting arrest. This incident captures the essence of why NOPD, is unable to make progress against the NOLA crime problem. When the police have contempt for the law, and they bully and coerce law-abiding citizens, people lose faith in the police and fear them instead. Police lawlessness translates into general lawlessness, undermines community support, mocks our constitutional rights and any concept of justice, and ultimately proves that public employees can waste their time using violence and threats to enforce arbitrary rules. Not exactly a formula for success.

  • http://twitter.com/ColiseumSquare Louis Hern

    Given Owing’s description of the bouncer: “… massive, distended stomach…” it’s probable that the bouncer was an off-duty cop working an off-the books detail. Did the bouncer use the numeral 10 frequently in his conversation? From what I can tell looking at the crime scene photograph of Owing accompanying this article: his disheveled appearance, whiplashed or garroted stiff neck, stretched-out Ban-lon Looney Tunes necktie, hair pulled out of the corners of his forehead, he was roughed up tumultuously by Officer Mayhem.

    Uptown Messenger, What are your liabilities in revealing the name of the club owner? Are you more worried about physical retaliation by Officer Mayhem and the club owner (say a bowling ball dropped from a police helicopter) than you are with the vagaries & expenses of a libel trial? Or is the concern equally divided?

    Louis

    • UptownMessenger

      Louis, I stated my reasoning above — I believe more information is warranted before making this a column about an individual club owner.

      The value of this column as written, in my opinion, is the discussion of the “contempt of cop” issue that Owen describes. I have no reason to doubt anything Owen has written here, but the club owner’s actions are vague. If the call to police simply reported someone “causing a problem” outside the bar, my belief is that it was the officer’s role upon arrival to investigate and inform him that Owen wasn’t actually causing a problem — his poor customer service was. Had that happened, and Owen decided to write about a bar owner with a misguided since of ownership of “his” corner, I would likewise have asked him to withhold the name of the bar and focus on that issue. As Owen mentioned above, he has expressed his opinion of the bar itself on Yelp, and I think that’s a perfectly appropriate response as well.

      Having said all that, when more evidence is available to give us a better picture of what the bar owner actually did, I may have a different judgment.

      • http://twitter.com/ColiseumSquare Louis Hern

        Uptown Messenger performed adequate enough service by allowing Owing to lead us to the Yelp site.

        Shouldn’t we pool some resources to get Owing a spectacular windblown haircut (Aiden Gill) and a Rubenstein’s suit for his inevitable upcoming perp walk following his next bogus arrest by Officer Mayhem?

  • http://twitter.com/ColiseumSquare Louis Hern

    I looked at Yelp. Lots of luck dealing with that club owner. Pure Deliverance Villain. Leave your raft cautiously.

  • Paulette

    Owen Man, so you took the streetcar because you were planning to drink, good move. But you spent your last $1.25 on the trolley fare. I understand you probably weren’t expecting a $10 cover, but what were you planning to buy drinks with? Are you sure you weren’t drunk?

  • Christin

    NOLA cops have to pass a physical? For real, or is it more like, “You didn’t pass..oh, there seems to be a lost Benjamin attached to these results…PASS!”

  • Jeff

    Owen, As you alluded to the wiser choice would have been to go on about your way & not stand your ground or up for your rights. However, since you chose this path I believe fully that it is now your duty to follow through & fight this all the way up to & including charges, suits etc against this officer. Cops like this eventually end up shooting disabled people in the back as they attempt to peacefully walk across a bridge. In short they’re bad for everyone, most of all they’re bad for NOPD and the good police officers working there.

    I tend to believe myself fairly easy going except for Bad Cops, violations of civil rights & a couple of other unrelated areas. Please consider posting updates on your NOPD saga. I’m rooting for you & for this officer’s dismissal.

    • Owen Courreges

      Jeff,

      Well, it would have been the “smarter for me” move to just leave, but not really the best for society. I hate that the police put people in the situation of either consenting to unlawful orders or going through OPP. It would be better if this was a rare occurrence because the norm was for citizens to stand up for themselves rather than cower to the cops. As you note, cops like Baham tend to do worse than this.

      In fact, Baham was accused of a false arrest following the police shooting of Adolph Grimes, III, on New Year’s Day in 2009. Apparently, after Grimes was shot, his father came out and was arrested and brought to the station in handcuffs when he began asking questions. One of the arresting Officers was Officer Baham:

      http://images.bimedia.net/documents/Grimessuit.pdf

      It sounds squirrelly to me, but I really only know the facts of my own case. I will try and post updates as I get them, including the police report.

  • Jo

    The troubling thing about this is that I knew immediately which bar it was as soon as I read this. Stories just like this have been circulating for a while about the owner and the door guy. I’m afraid that unless they change the way they handle their patrons, someone will be hurt, not necessarily by them, but by the NOPD they’re in such a hurry to call.

    • Owen Courreges

      Jo,

      If you can tell me anything specific regarding prior incidents such as this, please feel free to e-mail me — it might help my cause. My e-mail address is owen@courregeslaw.com.

  • Researcher
  • david

    This story reminds me of when I was at Tipitana’s about 30 years ago for cheap beer and music on a Monday Night. This guy Tony arrived before they started to collect the $2-3 dollar cover. When the bouncer went around the club to collect the cover, Tony (who was from Boston) invoked the “I got here before there was a cover charge so I don’t have to pay” rule. He refused to pay the few bucks. The bouncer called the police and Tony spent 2 days in jail.

    Not on point but your experience at the Willow Inn brought back this ancient memory.

  • Bennett

    I had officer Baham respond to my home last Spring when a bike was stolen from my backyard. I was really impressed with how nice he was and how he took the time to fill out all of the forms and get the fingerprint guy over. He was super nice but he did say if he saw someone on my bike he was going to f#%@ them up! I was happy to hear that he took the theft seriously but had always wondered if he would have beat the person he found on my bike! That sucks with what happened to you, I definately have a little fear of the NOPD because of this kind of stuff.

  • Expatmom

    Owen–The thing that always, always works?? Have a good looking woman on your arm!!

  • http://twitter.com/SpacewaysInc B P Messenger

    Even if it were illegal to stand on the sidewalk of an establishment whose owner doesn’t like you, the NOPD should be worrying about rampant violent crime and not sending five police to tell someone to move along!

    Since it is perfectly legal, the owner should have been reprimanded by the police for wasting their time and our tax dollars.

    • Owen Courreges

      BP Messenger,

      I thought the same thing. Five officers? Really? If I call about a hit and run or a theft, I have to wait hours for a single officer to show up. But a “man on a sidewalk” call gets give officers out? It makes it appear that the NOPD is overstaffed, not the other way around.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1631952558 Whitney Voltz

    Owen, you are a rockstar! You were absolutely right to stand your ground. I’ve seen a friend through a similar situation and yes, the police do hold grudges and act unreasonably after the fact. But when they’re wrong, they’re wrong and it takes strong-willed, informed citizens to champion the laws that all of us are obligated to uphold–including officers of the disturbance.

    • Owen Courreges

      Whitney,

      I appreciate that. I vascillate between thinking I’m pig-headed and a crusader with things like this, like when I paid double the face value of a camera ticket to file an appeal (and I’ve never gotten any money back from that), but at the very least this kind of thing makes good fodder for columns. I hope it informs Uptown residents about the injustices in city government and the need for reform. These low-level violations of our basic rights are the most common and in the most need of attention.

  • david

    Owen,

    You’ll use the ATM at the jail, but not at the bar? Why?

    • Owen Courreges

      David,

      Three reasons:

      1) The bar didn’t have an ATM. I would have had to walked a block away to one of those expensive third-party ATMs (my bank is Capital One).

      2) I didn’t exactly have a choice at OPP; I could use the ATM there or spend the night in jail. A bit of a different situation. I wasn’t really over a barrell at the bar; I was at OPP.

      3) The ATM at OPP was a Capital One ATM, so I didn’t owe any ATM fees whatsoever. Even if I were a die hard avoider of ATM fees, it just wasn’t an issue at OPP.

      4) The calculus is different for paying $300 in bail versus a $10 cover charge. Even if it had been a third party ATM at OPP, it would have been about a $4 ATM fee. $4 is 40% of $10, but only 1.33333% of $300.

      • david

        Per your Yelp ID of bar, you are incorrect about the lack of bar ATM. Capital One Bank 4 blocks away. Life is too short….Go to Jazz Fest (and bring lots of cash).