"Improper Use of a Sidewalk"? WTF, DPD?

Hey, Tea Party people and libertarians. Does it bother you at all that the Dallas police Saturday arrested seven people for "improper use of a sidewalk?" Does it occur to you that if bullshit charges like those can stick even for a minute, it means you can't walk down the street in Dallas unless the cops tell you that you can? (Five were released at 1:30 this morning.)

I'm not talking about the Occupy Dallas protester who got into a tussle with police over a flag. Some people say the YouTube video of the incident in front of Bank of America Plaza Saturday proves the cops provoked a melee. I don't know what it proves.

I know you can't fight with the cops. There is always a gun involved. The cop's gun. Too often when somebody fights with a cop, it occurs to him or her to go for the cop's gun. You can't fight with cops. You have to stop, back up, shut up, give up, get away from it. You can't fight with cops.

But you can damn well walk down the street if you want to. You can cheer and carry signs. How do you think we got free from England? This is still America, right?

After they took down the guy with the sign, the cops grabbed up seven more people and hauled them off to jail on a charge of "improper use of a sidewalk." I looked up sidewalk use in the city codes this morning.

There's all kinds of stuff in there about not tying up horses in ways that block sidewalks, not standing around next to a day-care center after they ask you to vamoose-- laws that are either left over from olden days or make a little bit of sense in modern times. But there's nothing that says the cops can stand there judging how you walk down the street like they're Simon Cowell.

I talked this morning to Peter Lesser, one of the city's best criminal defense lawyers, to ask him how somebody actually winds up behind bars on something like this. I wanted to know if the magistrate at the jail Saturday could have asked the cops to pony up the precise statute on which they wanted these people jailed.

"Absolutely," he said. "Remember, magistrates are judges. They can ask for anything."

I don't think the cops had a good ordinance for these arrests. Or a state law. These are bullshit charges. Yes, there are ordinances governing sidewalks. But they're very specific. I don't believe there's an umbrella law that gives the police absolute authority to pop you if they don't like the way you're walking.

Look, we tend to put cops in a position sometimes. Last week before all this happened, there were expressions of official impatience from City Hall with the Occupy Dallas protests. It's not at all outside the realm of possibility that somebody told those cops to shake things up.

I really hope not, because in that case the crucial remedy here is for the arrested persons to sue the individual cops for false arrest and use the lawsuits as leverage to look for the political agenda behind the arrests.

I asked Lesser if he thinks suing for false arrest is a fool's errand. He said no. He said he has sued cops and won money for clients over bad arrests.

"The police have what we call 'qualified immunity,'" he said. "In order to overcome qualified immunity you have to show that the police action was an action that a regular police officer doing his job wouldn't do, or there has to be malice.

"There are certain things that overcome the qualified immunity issue that a reasonable police officer should know. The other way you can sue the city is if they have inadequate training." Cops have a very hard job. Like I say, they also get caught in the middle when City Hall has a political agenda. So I don't offer this suggestion lightly.

But those seven sidewalk arrests were an abomination and an assault on basic American liberty. Somebody needs to learn not to pull that shit on us anymore. Lawsuits may be right way to teach that lesson.

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze