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Rock Hill considers revisions to resisting police law

Rock Hill has proposed changing a law which has been challenged as unconstitutional and a tool for targeting minorities.

A revised resisting police ordinance , which opponents claim is too vague, making it illegal to cross the street or speak in public, is up for its first reading Monday at Rock Hill's City Council.

The proposed ordinance says: "No person in any physical manner shall oppose, resist or interfere with any police officer in the discharge of the police officer's official duties."

The proposal is identical to the ordinance passed in 2001 with the addition of "in any physical manner."

That's the change B.J. Barrowclough, deputy public defender for York County, suggested officials make to clarify the ordinance when he challenged the law, claiming it violated a resident's First and Fourth amendment Constitutional rights in May 2010.

Barrowclough said it's a good thing his "much needed" suggestions were taken. He said he is finally relieved to have to stop fighting these resisting police cases one by one.

But he is concerned the proposed changes won't fix all of the issues with the ordinance . The other proposed change is to another ordinance's "investigatory stops."

The section reads anyone who refuses to identify him or herself after being detained, or who flees or attempts to flee detainment, shall be charged with resisting police.

The proposed change removes "resisting police" and replaces it with a violation of "this section." No punishment is attached to the new wording as there is in the current section.

"The good thing is police won't be able to charge someone with resisting police for not stopping when they call or running away," Barrowclough said. "We'll need to wait and see how it's applied."

He said it is still not legal to arrest someone for walking away, or not answering an officer's question, without probable cause.

"It would be cleaner, less confusing and be in more conformity with the Constitution just to take that section out," he said.

Threatened legal action

The president of Rock Hill's NAACP threatened legal action last month when he appeared before City Council, claiming police use the law to unfairly arrest black men for either walking down the street, or not answering when police order them to "stop."

The NAACP's concerns prompted the American Civil Liberties Union to investigate. In a letter to the city's attorney, the ACLU asked Rock Hill to repeal the resisting police ordinance. Instead, the city drafted the proposed changes.

Rock Hill Police Chief John Gregory has defended how his officers use the current resisting police law. He said police are not just pulling people off the streets because of their race and charging them with the offense. He said his officers are applying the ordinance properly to prevent, reduce and solve crimes.

More than 75 percent of the people charged with resisting police in the last 12 months are black, according to police statistics. Of the 130 people arrested during the period, 99 were black.

More than 70 percent of people cited for resisting police in the last year also were charged with another crime at the same time. Those include drug and alcohol crimes, assaults, disorderly conduct, harassment, traffic offenses and shoplifting.

Resisting police

Officers use the resisting police charge when someone runs away or doesn't cooperate when an officer needs to ask questions before a suspect is placed under arrest. Police often use the ordinance to stop trespassing suspects, or to get identification from people hanging out in neighborhoods with a history of illegal drug activity.

The charge, which is a misdemeanor, is often used instead of the felony resisting arrest.

The resisting police law was first challenged in municipal court in May 2010. Barrowclough argued portions of the ordinance violate a resident's First and Fourth amendment rights. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits infringing on the freedom of speech and assembly; the Fourth Amendment guards against unreasonable searches and seizures.

Prosecutors with Rock Hill dismissed the 2010 case. At that time, Assistant Solicitor Paula Knox Brown said the law needed to be rewritten to be clear and fair for law enforcement and residents.

This is the first change proposed by the city since the ordinance went into effect in 2001.

For the proposed changes to go into effect, the revisions must pass two readings by the City Council.

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