Cop Abuses Bad Cyberbullying Law To Arrest Man For Calling Him A Pedophile To His Face
from the wrap-your-mind-around-that-for-a-bit dept
Legislators like pushing cyberbullying/cyberharassment bills, but seldom seem to consider how their badly/broadly-written laws will be abused. Like many legislators pushing cyber legislation, New Jersey politician David Norcross just wanted to help the children.
State Sen. Donald Norcross (D-Camden) said the bill is tailored specifically to protect children, closing a loophole in state law that prevents people from being criminally prosecuted for online harassment of minors.
“There have been cases of cyber harassment across the country that have taken a tragic turn, and ended in the loss of life,” Norcross, who co-sponsored the bill with state Sen. Nicholas Sacco (D-Hudson), said. “We have to make sure that our state laws reflect the reality that children are being harassed and bullied every day on the Internet. That means making sure those who engage in this conduct can be held accountable under the law.”
The bill would ban people from using electronic devices and social media to threaten to injure or commit any crime against a person or his property, or send obscene material to or about someone.
So much for the “specific tailoring.” Norcross wanted to protect kids from bullies, but instead it’s “protecting” a cop from a local man with a long history of colorful speech and law enforcement interactions.
They’ve busted him for smoking pot, running a business past curfew, and not keeping his restaurant’s kitchen clean enough.
On Friday, however, it was Ed Forchion’s mouth that got him slapped in handcuffs, freedom of speech notwithstanding.
Days after Forchion stood outside his eatery and pot temple shouting “f— the police!” and calling one of the police officers a “pedophile,” NJ Weedman was charged with cyber-harassment and disorderly conduct.
The cyber-harassment charge, according to a copy of the complaint filed by Officer Herbert Flowers, was based on a Facebook and YouTube video of the confrontation in which Forchion is heard telling Flowers he’s a pedophile, while the disorderly conduct was for Forchion’s F-bombs against police “in public and social media forum.”
F-bombs are protected speech, so even the “disorderly conduct” charge is largely baseless. But the use of the cyberharassment law — which carries a possible penalty of 18 months in jail and a $10,000 fine — is completely ridiculous. If Forchion committed no crime by calling Officer Flowers a pedophile in person, no crime was committed simply because this confrontation was recorded (by a third party) and posted to YouTube (also, apparently by a third party).
This is simply a bad law being abused because that’s what bad laws — no matter how well-intentioned — allow people like Officer Flowers to do.
Officer Herbert Flowers has a history of subjectively interpreting Constitutional rights. He may have been upset by Forchion’s F-bombs, but that doesn’t explain his decision to punish Forchion for using his First Amendment rights. But Flowers has been down this road before.
Here’s the conclusion reached by the New Jersey Appeals Court, at the tail end of a six-year legal battle.
[W]e conclude that a reasonable police officer in 2006 could not have believed he had the absolute right to preclude Ramos from videotaping any gang activities or any interaction of the police with gang members for the purposes of making a documentary film on that topic.
The unreasonable police officer was none other than Herbert Flowers.
Ramos is a documentary filmmaker. In 2006, he was working on a project about the emergence of gangs in Trenton. Flowers is a police officer employed by the Trenton Police Department. Ramos contends that he had five encounters with the Trenton Police during the time he was filming the activities of various members of the “Sex Money Murder” Bloods sect, one of the largest Bloods gang units in Trenton. Three of the encounters involved Flowers. He alleges that Flowers’ actions during those three encounters interfered with his constitutional rights to free speech and assembly, as well as his right to be free from unlawful police search and seizure.
One of those encounters:
On July 6, 2006, the Trenton police responded to a call from the Trenton Public Library to investigate a meeting being held by known gang members on its premises. One of Ramos’s sources gave him a tip that he should go to the library to film the events as they unfolded. Once Ramos arrived at the library, Flowers told him he was interfering with a police investigation, adding: “I am sick of you already, I am sick of seeing you, I do not want to hear you anymore, you are not allowed here anymore.” Ramos asserts that Flowers grabbed his video camera and put it in his car. Flowers then told Ramos: “If I see you again … I am locking you up and I don’t care what for … you better not let me see you again … watch what happens.”
The filmmaker was charged with multiple violations after his arrest by Flowers. Only one charge stuck (obstructing a sidewalk), which was downgraded to a mere city ordinance violation.
Flowers is using a badly-written law meant to close statutory loopholes that prevented adults from being charged for harassing minors via social media to punish an adult for saying mean things to him to his face. Because Flowers didn’t arrest Forchion on the spot, this means he had to go looking for “evidence” of Forchion’s supposed “cyberharassment,” which the officer somehow feels is a better statutory match for verbal abuse he experienced in person. Sure, Flowers could try to sue Forchion for defamation, but that takes time and Flowers’ own cash. Flowers would rather have taxpayers finance his vendetta and see Flowers face a possible $10,000 fine and a stretch in jail than walk away from the disorderly conduct charge he likely won’t be able to make stick.
This is why we warn against the unintended consequences of laws like these. It’s not because we don’t care about bullied kids. It’s because adults — especially those in positions of power — will abuse them to stifle speech. Rather than simply ignore the personal attack, Flowers chose to treat it as a criminal offense. The end result is that Forchion, a.k.a. “NJ Weedman” — a person who runs a “pot temple” he apparently feels is beyond the reach of state regulation — is now the least ridiculous participant in this confrontation.