When The Police Come Knocking ...
There must be few things more embarrassing than a policeman’s knock on the door during a domestic dispute. It’s bad enough that you’ve lost your cool and stand screaming at your bride with all the seeming hate you can muster. Your neighbors are now listening — and then the flashing lights of a squad car and the prying eyes of a lawman.
The sparks fly so red-hot in some marital disputes that one of the warring parties sometimes thinks it’s a good idea to call 911. I recall a case years ago in which a husband and wife were warring about whether he’d yet called to refinance the mortgage.
Of course, he hadn’t, and she wanted to let him know she’d tired of his dawdling ways. He picked up the telephone.
“If you don’t shut up,” he screamed, “I’m calling 911.”
When she didn’t, he did.
“Oh, my God,” she said. “Quick, call them. Tell them not to come.”
Too late. Moments later cops were in the home searching for signs of violence. The woman locked herself in the ground floor bathroom, refusing to come out. In the end, both husband and wife were handcuffed, taken from their home, and booked at the police station.
In another case, a couple also argued about money. When he made a comment about her son’s hygiene, things went ballistic. A wine glass was thrown against a wall. Doors were slammed. The police were called.
This time, the man barricaded himself in shame in the bedroom. A tense standoff led to his arrest. He went to trial and was convicted of interfering with police officers.
I thought of these cases last week as I listened to a verdict returned in a Rockville courtroom, just east of Manchester.
My client was accused of strangling his girlfriend, assaulting her, and threatening her. When her mother refused to do so, she called the police. Rule number one in a domestic dispute: first one to the police station is the “victim.”
He’d been drinking and wasn’t exactly happy to see the police. He spat at one officer, kicked at another and generally made it hard for the officers to take him into custody, or so the police testified.
The state threw the book at him. It charged him with assaulting the police officers. Believe it or not, state law makes it a felony to spit at a police officer with the intent to prevent him from doing his duty. It is also a felony to kick an officer. He was also charged with what I call one of the law’s fourth outfielders, interfering with a police officer — a grab bag sort of offense that they charge when they can’t think of anything else.
Interfering is a class A misdemeanor carrying a penalty of up to one year in prison. A person is guilty of it if they obstruct, hinder, resists or endanger an officer in the lawful performance of his duties. He was also charged with reckless endangerment for revving his truck’s engine as he sat in the cab in defiance of the officer’s commands to get out.
A jury acquitted him of all the charges relating to his girlfriend. He was also acquitted of the felony involving spitting and reckless endangerment. He was convicted of interfering and the assault involving kicking. He faces up to 11 years for these offenses.
The tragedy is that a jury rejected the state’s claim that he strangled, assaulted and threatened his girlfriend — the charges police were called to the home to investigate. Even so, he’s still on his way to prison, a victim of the deadliest, most addictive drug of all, anger.
There was anger aplenty at the scene of his arrest.
One state trooper testified that she took photographs of injuries to the girlfriend. When presented with the photographs at trial, she testified she could see the very injuries on the images. I doubt anyone else could. When challenged, she rolled her eyes, a brat in a tantrum.
“Why are you rolling your eyes?” I asked her.
“I am not rolling my eyes,” she replied.
“Everyone in the room just watched you do it,” I replied. I knew we were in good shape when I heard a juror giggle. I wanted to chant, “liar, liar, badge on fire,” but I didn’t.
She fussed, she fumed, and, singlehandedly, she demonstrated the arrogance some officers bring to their job: This very arrogance, I am persuaded, is what leads some arrests to end with unnecessary violence.
But none of that helped my client walk out the door, and that’s the moral of this column: Whether they are right or wrong, when police officers bang on your door in response to a complaint, the law requires compliance with their commands. Forget that, and you’ll find yourself in handcuffs.
Connecticut law doesn’t give officers a whole lot of discretion about whether to arrest if they have a reasonable basis to believe that an act of domestic violence took place in a home. If they see a bruise, or red mark, or signs that the home has been ransacked, someone is going to get arrested, even if the victim of the assault does not want the other party arrested.
That’s because of the Tracey Thurman case in Torrington in 1983. Ms. Thurman and her husband, Buck, had a stormy relationship. Police were often called to their Torrington home when the couple brawled. But they rarely arrested Buck. Lovers’ quarrels weren’t police business, the officers decided. The police also refused to arrest Buck on a similar rationale for violating a protective order.
When Buck ultimately stabbed Tracey, nearly to death, the law was changed. Arrests are now required if there is evidence of violence. Most folks don’t understand that.
Whether that is a good law or a bad law is a topic for another day. What is critical is realizing that if the cops turn up at your door in response to a domestic complaint, you can be arrested even if all you have done is argue with your spouse, an activity as old, I suspect, as the institution of marriage itself.
The law is generous to a fault to police officers responding to domestic violence calls. Not only are the officers permitted to use force, the courts have created judicial immunities that give judges the power to toss all but the most egregious police misconduct suits out of court.
We beat five out of the seven counts the state threw at my client in Rockville last week, including every count accusing him of abusing his girlfriend. Even so, it was no win. You see, a jury concluded my client’s reaction to the police landed him behind bars. He’d be free today if he could have held his temper when lawmen appeared to ask questions.