“Contempt of cop” is a popular phrase floating around the Internet lately. A play on words created by police officers and civil libertarians, the phrase describes a situation where a citizen disrespects the authority of law enforcement–from the perspective of law enforcement. Despite the connotation, contempt of cop is not actually a crime. In fact, it should probably be encouraged.
A good demonstration of this law concept comes in the form of a YouTube video posted in July of 2013. A young man rolls through a DUI checkpoint on the 4th of July, where he encounters several ornery sheriffs. One sheriff wants him to roll his window down further—which, judging by the video, is not necessary—and when the young man refuses, he is ordered over to what is presumably a section where officers order detainees for further screening (which the officer arguably did not have suspicion to do so).
As the video progresses, the officers’ frustration over the young man’s entirely lawful reactions and responses to aggressive police behavior and questionable investigatory techniques ultimately lead them to bringing in a K-9 Unit, which produces a “false trigger,” which gives them cause to search his car. With the camera still rolling, the original sheriff, while conducting what is very arguably an unlawful search (particularly in context of what he will say next), is recorded saying, “He is perfectly innocent. He knows his rights. He knows what the Constitution says.” Then continues to search anyway. Once the officers notice they are being filmed, they turn the camera over. The search expectedly does not turn up anything illegal, and the ordeal ends.
While many of these contempt of cop videos demonstrate that citizens have a slightly misinformed or inaccurate understanding of the particulars of the law, the same lack of knowledge of the law is demonstrated by the officers. Both parties in these videos occasionally just seem to rattle off buzzwords in an attempt to intimidate the other party. Ultimately, however, they inspire an important thought: the more citizens challenge officers, the more citizens and officers should be compelled to educate themselves.
But how far can contempt of cop go? While in law school, I remember hearing of a young San Francisco man who was arrested after a police officer didn’t believe the name he was giving him, so he asked the cop “What if I tell you [my name is] f*** you?” During closing arguments, his lawyer astutely pointed out that “It is not a crime to have a smart mouth.” The young man was ultimately acquitted. While being rude to a cop is never recommended, this case illustrates an important concept—your rights are your rights, and no one, especially not the government, can take them away from you simply because you have insulted them.
It goes without saying that the safety of police officers and their ability to conduct their job without opposition are incredibly important. However, that does not mean that police officers are bestowed an unlimited amount of power and authority. When they are abusing their position in order to cut corners—or violate constitutional rights—citizens absolutely should not be afraid to be in contempt of cop and speak up.
However, I’d like to see this phrase go away, because in essence, this whole concept of contempt of cop is simply citizens exercising their constitutional rights. And unfortunately, as demonstrated by the case of the young San Francisco man, occasionally exercising those rights come with a price. It is not uncommon for those questioning an officer’s authority to be tagged with a citation or perhaps an arrest. While there is some solace that calmer, more legal heads will prevail, and these charges will likely go away, it is a cold comfort.
The simple fact of the matter, however, is that the First Amendment and the Fourth Amendment protect some very important rights, and an increased awareness of what those rights are is ultimately better for everyone—citizens and law enforcement alike.