Court Monitor

Arrest for Interrupting Officer Leads to Invalidation of Ordinance

When a passenger gave advice to the driver of a car that he did not have to comply with a request by a police officer to submit to a voluntary field sobriety test, the officer arrested the passenger for repeatedly interrupting him. The passenger was then convicted for violating a Carson City, Nevada ordinance that made it a crime to "for any person to hinder, obstruct, resist, delay, molest or threaten to hinder, obstruct, resist, delay or molest any city officer or member of the sheriff's office . . . in the discharge of his official duties." Carson City Municipal Code 8.04.050(1).

The convicted passenger next challenged the law all the way to the Nevada Supreme Court, by arguing that the ordinance is unconstitutionally vague. The Nevada Supreme Court agreed by a 5-2 vote, and struck down the ordinance. Scott v. First Judicial District Court of Nevada, 2015 Nev. LEXIS 123 (Dec. 31, 2015).

In defense of the law, the State of Nevada argued that the passenger, William Allen Scott, was not arrested for his speech, but for his conduct in interrupting an investigation by the sheriff's deputy. The Nevada Supreme Court was unpersuaded, and found that Scott was arrested and convicted for his verbal interruptions of the sheriff's deputy. Moreover, the ordinance made it a crime merely to "threaten to hinder, obstruct, resist, delay or molest" a police officer (emphasis added). "Criminalizing mere threats further implicates speech as opposed to conduct," the Court held.

The Court ruled that the ordinance simply gives too much power and discretion to arrest people based only on what they say. The Court gave an example of when "a sheriff's deputy is directing traffic at an intersection, and a pedestrian politely asks the deputy for directions, the pedestrian could be arrested for hindering or delaying the deputy's ability to direct traffic." The ordinance places the discretion entirely in a deputy to determine at what point speech reaches the level of an unlawful delay of an officer under the ordinance. "It is obvious that the prohibitions in [the ordinance] are 'violated scores of times daily, . . . yet only some individuals — those chosen by the police in their unguided discretion — are arrested,'" the Court held, quoting a U.S. Supreme Court decision that had invalidated a similar ordinance in Houston v. Hill, 482 U.S. 451 (1987).

The Nevada Supreme Court concluded that the ordinance is "unconstitutionally vague because it lacks sufficient guidelines and gives the sheriff too much discretion in its enforcement." The Las Vegas City Council reacted by unanimously repealing its similar ordinance.

People who protest outside abortion clinics should be heartened by this decision, which can protect them in objecting to unlawful arrests. Indeed, anyone who hands out leaflets critical of government should appreciate the precedent that this decision establishes to protect their exercise of First Amendment rights. The Court observed that current state laws properly prohibit conduct that interferes with law enforcement without criminalizing speech.