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NAACP: Rock Hill's resisting police law targets minorities

Rock Hill's NAACP president is challenging city leaders to take action on a resisting police law they admit needs to be rewritten.

Melvin Poole has asked the American Civil Liberties Union to investigate the city's resisting police ordinance which opponents say is so broad and vague it can make it illegal to walk across the street or to speak.

Poole says the ordinance is being unfairly used by police to target minorities, especially black men.

"My concern is anyone can be arrested without committing a crime," Poole said. "You don't have to do something illegal, just be perceived as not being kind to a police officer."

Last year, 130 people were cited for resisting police. Poole said his research shows 110 of those were minorities.

"It looks like it's a law being used mostly against black men. It's wrong to have a law on a book like that," Poole said.

City Solicitor Chris Barton said those numbers are probably skewed because of the neighborhoods police heavily patrol.

"Resisting police is usually utilized by the (police department's) Street Crimes Unit which is interacting with citizens more," Barton said. "They spend a lot of time in the Weed and Seed high drug, high crime neighborhoods, which are largely African American in population."

B.J. Barrowclough, deputy public defender for York County, first challenged the law in May 2010. He claimed portions of the ordinance violate a resident's first and fourth amendment rights of freedom of speech and assembly and protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.

Barrowclough has said the law could be fixed by inserting the word "physical," such as physically oppose, physically resist and physically interfere.

That would eliminate most of the speech issues, he said.

Barrowclough disputed the legality of the ordinance while representing a client in Rock Hill Municipal Court last year, saying it gives officers excessive authority to arrest. Instead of waiting for a decision from Municipal Judge Peter J. Lenzi Jr., city solicitors dismissed that case, Assistant Solicitor Knox Brown said.

At the time, Knox Brown said the law needed to be rewritten to be clear and fair for law enforcement and residents.

Poole said he plans to bring his concerns to the Rock Hill City Council at the Aug. 8 meeting.

"They already found it unconstitutional," Poole said. "The city said they'd take a look at it. They haven't. Rock Hill doesn't think much of the Constitution."

The law is being enforced and prosecuted in a constitutional manner, Barton said. Police have cited 88 people this year for violating this ordinance, Lt. Brad Redfearn said.

In cases where language on ordinances is challenged for being too broad or vague, Barton said the law still "passes muster" when enforcement is only done in cases where officers have reasonable suspicion or probable cause.

"Given our view of the statute and how we enforce it, I think we're staying within the Constitution," Barton said.

Rock Hill's ordinance is similar to the state's statute, Barton said. That strengthens his argument that it's not unconstitutional.

The state's statue reads:

"It is unlawful for a person knowingly and willfully to oppose or resist a law enforcement officer in serving, executing, or attempting to serve or execute a legal writ or process or to resist an arrest being made by one whom the person knows or reasonably should know is a law enforcement officer, whether under process or not."

Barrowclough said it's "ridiculous" to compare the city's ordinance to this statute. The state law can be imposed when the officer is in the process of investigating, which differs from Rock Hill's law which can make it illegal to walk away from an officer.

He argues if the law is only being applied in cases where there's reasonable suspicion of a crime , then the resisting police ordinance isn't necessary.

"It doesn't address the unconstitutional way it's (the law) is drafted," Barrowclough said. "It doesn't put the public on notice. It's overly broad."

Last fall Barton said prosecutors were being more "judicious" on who is brought to court on those charges while the law was being evaluated. He said the City Council could still review or revise the law.

Legal Director Susan Dunn said South Carolina's ACLU is pursuing a change to this ordinance at Poole's urging. She said she's researching the issue and will be in Rock Hill next month to meet with those affected by the ordinance.

No legal action has been filed.

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