Oh, Officer. You Were Talking To Me?
You decide one night to go to the movies. So you trundle off to downtown New Haven for a late-evening showing of the new Batman flick, "The Dark Knight Returns." Because it’s New Haven, you decide you better be armed to defend yourself. Who knows, you might get mugged by your parking attendant. So you pack your trusty pistol in the back of your trousers and wade bravely into the movie theater. Although you have a permit to carry the gun, fellow moviegoers don’t know that. They see the gun and freak out. The police are called.
Soon the theater is swarming with cops. You’re busy chatting on your cell phone. One cop orders you to show your hands. You:
a. Keep talking because, after all, the police must be talking to someone else;
b. Hang up because even though you don’t know who they are talking to, it is sufficiently unusual to see the cops in a theater that you figure the smart thing to do is keep your eyes and ears open;
c. Hang up because it’s apparent the police officer is issuing you an order;
d. Try to ignore the officer because, after all, you know you’re rights and you’ve got a pistol permit.
Most reasonable people would chose either "b" or "c." It goes without saying that a cop in a theater ordering someone to show their hands is not looking for buttery fingers. "D" is the gun zealot’s choice.
I am not sure what to make of Attorney Sung-Ho Hwang, the president-elect of the New Haven County Bar Association. He didn’t show his hands while all Hell was breaking loose around him. He ended up being arrested for breach of the peace and interfering with a police officer. He is now Connecticut’s very own poster boy for the Second Amendment right to bear arms.
I guess there just can’t be enough guns in the United States. Until every man, woman and child has them strapped to both ankles and carried on belt holsters accessible for a quick draw, I suspect we’re at risk of invasion from some foreign power, or from the government, or from gang-banging lawless Zombies walking our streets on the eve of the Apocalypse. Sure, there will be a little collateral damage from time: a movie theater shot up in Aurora, Colorado; some Sikhs wasted at prayer; a judge, a congressman from time to time. Violence is as American as apple pie, right? Pass the .38 and smile for the camera. Bam, bam, bam for Jesus, I say.
But I can’t help thinking Attorney Hwang looks less like a rising leader of the bar than a member of the lunatic fringe. Most lawyers know that one is obliged to follow the orders of a cop, even if the cop is wrong to issue the order. Keep yacking on your cell phone when a cop orders you to show your hands, and you’re likely to get arrested for interfering with a police officer. It takes little to create probable cause, or arguable probable cause, for an arrest: merely obstruct, hinder or delay an identifiable peace officer in the performance of his duties and you are a candidate for handcuffs.
Yes, Attorney Hwang had a permit, and therefore the right, to carry a gun to the theater. And yes, he cannot be arrested for breach of the peace just because someone saw the gun and freaked out. But stonewalling a cop in a crowded theater while others panic or sit tensely by just might get you arrested for causing alarm in public.
Attorney Hwang has already given a press conference on the matter. He did nothing wrong. No, not him. He didn’t know the police were talking to him. Oh, Lord. What will a jury make of that defense? "You were talking to me, officer?" I see a gum chewing blonde at the stop light, skirt hiked up a little too far.
Mayor DeStefano also gave a press conference. He launched what might be the dumbest defense of an arrest I ever heard: "Just because it’s legal, doesn’t make it right." What is the mayor saying? We can arrest people on grounds of moral apprehension? New Haven gets the leadership it deserves. I am glad I do not live in the Elm City.
I wasn’t in the theater the other night. I don’t know what went down. But I expect more smarts from a lawyer, and from a leader of the bar, no less. Attorney Hwang’s mastery of what will now become the classic defense to a charge of interfering – "I was on the phone" – is not persuasive. I knew there was a reason I avoided bar functions. With gun-toting leaders tuning out on common sense, the events are too dangerous for me.
Expect this case to be litigated to the hilt for all the wrong reasons. Yes, we all have the right to be principled idiots. But most bar presidents know better. I suspect Attorney Hwang did. He just wanted to play Sam Adams.
Reprinted courtesy of the Connecticut Law Tribune.