On the internet, there are a bunch of guys that go around filming the police, police stations, FBI and DEA buildings, U.S. Post Offices, and so on. They label these actions as “First Amendment” audits, and they are trying to provoke or bait either the occupants of the building or the responding police into making an arrest. I don’t have too much of a problem with this, if the police are going to be entrusted with the power to take away someone’s liberty, then they need to be trained on the limits of that power.
When one or more of the officers do make an arrest in these cases, they’ve usually made a mistake that will be corrected by either police supervisors or by the prosecutor. But every once in a while there is a mistake made, but it is not by the police. You know, if you keep pushing the edges of the envelope, at some point you’re going to find that you’ve exited the envelope.
In Annapolis, Maryland, Landon Tomsa was conducting a First Amendment audit on the post office, as shown below.
In the first part of the video, Landon is confronted by postal employees, who advise him that he needs to leave Post Office property. That’s fine, but Landon is not on Post Office property, he’s on a public sidewalk. A few minutes later, the Anne Arundel County police arrive (at 3:55) and things start to go downhill. The initial officer notes that filming is not a criminal violation and asks for identification. Landon refuses to provide identification, and the officer does not press it at this time.
Then a second officer arrives, and both officers go and talk to the postal employees. When they return to Landon (at 9:30), the officers advise Landon that the employees have stated that Landon entered Post Office property, walking past “no trespassing” signs. At this point, the officers have reasonable suspicion that Landon committed a crime, that of criminal trespass.
Landon, who knows that he did not enter the property, refuses to either identify or to show his video to the officers, even after he said that the video proves that he did not enter the property. While Landon knows that he’s innocent of the crime he is being accused of, that’s not the standard. The officers have reasonable suspicion that Landon committed a crime, so they ask him to identify himself.
Landon is under the mistaken idea that the officers had to have seen him on the property, that relying on the postal employees word is hearsay. Even if it was hearsay, that doesn’t matter, the rules of admissibility don’t apply at this point. The officers have reasonable suspicion, which is what they are required to have at this point. They have a right to identify him at this point, and in Maryland, refusing to identify when required will result in charges for Obstructing or Hindering an Officer.*
The officers repeatedly tell Landon this, and Landon still refuses to identify. This is where it gets really complicated. It’s my understanding of Maryland law† that the officers would not be able to arrest for the trespassing charge if they did not see it. They are, however, able to arrest for the obstructing charge, because they did observe that offense, and they can then also charge Landon with the trespassing. That’s exactly what they did, and the internet went nutso.
A bunch of different YouTubers and websites have been critical of the police, screaming that the arrest was unlawful. That’s all well and good, but wrong. The arrest was completely lawful. The officers had reasonable suspicion that Landon committed trespass, because the employees said that he had trespassed, and no one provided evidence to refute that. At that point, the officers were legally entitled to identify Landon, but he refused, thereby committing the offense of obstructing or hindering. So they arrested him, and have been catching a ration of crap ever since by the internet experts.
It’s a shame, because the officers did their job and they did it professionally.
*Punishable by up to three years in jail and a $3,000 fine.
†I’m not a Maryland attorney.