Questionable arrests add to dilemma

Non Fred Fest is a daunting challenge for Fredonia police, and we should sympathize with their difficulties in maintaining order on that raucous weekend of outdoor parties centered on Canadaway Street. The OBSERVER’s editorial, “POLICING: Regional force adds to patrols,” (May 11) appropriately calls for greater involvement of regional police forces in future Non-Fred Fests. As the editorial says, many officers should be commended for their hard work in responding to this once-a-year event.

But there are limits on what police can legally do, and it’s important they stick to these limits. After all, every officer swore to uphold the U.S. Constitution, and they are legally obligated not to violate people’s constitutional rights.

From the numerous stories students have told me about how police have dealt with non-Fred Fest in the last two years, it is clear that the police are routinely violating students’ rights, including by illegally arresting them in the absence of probable cause that they committed any crime.

I’ve been teaching Criminal Law and Criminal Procedure, among other subjects, at SUNY Fredonia for about 10 years. One of the most basic facts about criminal law, which any lawyer or police officer is familiar with, is that a criminal act almost always involves some action on the part of the defendant.

Yet one of my students–a Canadaway resident–and her roommates were arrested by Fredonia police last year, not for anything she or her roommates did, but for what they didn’t do. Police claimed they should have forced the partiers to disperse. But in reality, they tried and it didn’t work. This shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with non-FredFest. If police couldn’t disperse the unruly crowds, why did police think residents could?

Fredonia police have stated that Canadaway residents “host” non-Fred Fest. But the fact is, non-FredFest occurs on Canadaway annually regardless of the wishes of the residents. Residents do not invite the crowds onto their street, and even when they ask people to get off their lawns — as my student did — the crowds ignore them.

According to the statute under which they were charged — second-degree criminal nuisance — it is a crime to “knowingly or recklessly create or maintain a condition which endangers the safety or health of a considerable number of persons,” or “knowingly conduct or maintain any premises…where persons gather for purposes of engaging in unlawful conduct.” It is clear that my student and her roommates were not guilty of this offense. Alarmingly, I also saw a video of Fredonia police arresting a young man at this year’s non-Fred Fest, apparently to retaliate against him for filming the police.

Arresting someone without probable cause that they have committed a crime is a violation of that person’s constitutional rights under the 4th and 14th Amendments. Not only are these illegal arrests that open the police to lawsuits, but they can have real consequences for students’ lives.

When my student went to court, the judge was astonished at such a charge and dismissed her case. No harm done? Not quite. It was highly distressing — perhaps even traumatizing — to be unjustly arrested.

Such feelings might be temporary. But unfortunately, when one Googles her name, a report of her arrest is one of the first results — with no mention, of course, that she was innocent of any crime and the police were the ones violating the law. This could follow her the rest of her life. And for what? Arresting her did nothing to punish or deter real lawbreaking.

This isn’t a one-off case. In my Criminal Procedure class this semester, at least three of my students had either been arrested or threatened with arrest by Fredonia police, based on nothing more than the fact that they lived on Canadaway. Another student in the same class was detained for a few minutes at this year’s non-FredFest for no apparent reason — he wasn’t even carrying an open container. Yet the Constitution requires police have at least reasonable suspicion of lawbreaking to conduct such a stop.

Police have every right to enforce the law at non-FredFest, and they should do whatever they can to ensure public safety and prevent violence and disorder. Ideally, they should draw on available research about best practices for policing street parties. But illegal arrests can only distract police from their duties, and make us less safe and free.

Jesse J. Norris, J.D., Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at SUNY Fredonia.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper? *

Starting at $2.99/week.

Subscribe Today