Sunday, September 23, 2007

Circuit City shopper, city of Brooklyn, Ohio resolve dispute over arrest

Brooklyn, Ohio prosecutor drops charge
Thursday, September 20, 2007
Michael Sangiacomo
Plain Dealer Reporter

Brooklyn - The city prosecutor on Wednesday dropped a misdemeanor charge of obstructing official police business against Circuit City shopper Michael Righi.

And Righi agreed that a police officer did nothing wrong in arresting him after he refused to show his driver's license outside the store Sept. 1.

The agreement Wednesday brought to a close the case of the Pittsburgh man, who refused to produce a receipt to a store employee after leaving the store.

Righi told the store employee he had no right to question him. After some argument, Righi called police and complained that store personnel were detaining him illegally.

When a police officer arrived, Righi refused to hand over his driver's license and the officer arrested him. Righi maintained police had no right to ask for a driver's license from a person not driving a car, a contention backed up later by legal experts.

Righi's attorney, Ian Friedman, said Wednesday that the Brooklyn prosecutor dropped the charge after Friedman agreed that police did nothing wrong.

The incident drew attention when Righi posted his account of the incident on his blog and was interviewed on a local radio station.

Righi raised questions about whether store employees have the authority to search customers' parcels.

Legal experts agreed that customers can refuse to allow store employees to search their bags. But if the shopper belongs to a wholesale club with rules allowing searches, the shopper must comply. And if store workers suspect shoplifting has occurred, they can only detain - not search - a customer until police arrive, legal experts said.

Righi was charged with a second-degree misdemeanor, which carries a maximum punishment of 90 days in jail and a $750 fine.

Friedman said the city and Righi only resolved the criminal charge, not the issue of consumer rights.

"We did not get into that," he said.

Asked why Righi abandoned his fight, Friedman said, "I think that time passed since the incident and all parties felt this was a reasonable way to end it. Righi is not charged with a crime and the city is happy. It's over. Otherwise, it would have been a long, drawn-out process that could have been costly."

Circuit City representatives, Brooklyn Law Director Hillary Goldberg and Righi did not return telephone calls Wednesday.

Arrested at Circuit City Conclusion

I am proud to announce that the baseless charges brought against me by the Brooklyn, Ohio Police Department were dropped this morning and the process of expunging my record has begun. Although I knew that this was a possible outcome for the last ten days, I didn’t acquire the certainty until late yesterday afternoon. I was not at liberty to make this announcement yesterday since the process had not formally been completed.

This brings to a formal conclusion my criminal defense which began when I was arrested on September 1st, 2007 at a Circuit City for refusing to provide a police officer with my driver’s license. The fact that my charges were dropped reaffirms the assertion which I’ve made since the beginning: US citizens are not and should not be required to provide paper identification when asked by law enforcement, in most circumstances. In Ohio this right is specifically protected by Ohio Revised Code 2921.29 which states that a person may not be arrested for refusing to provide a law enforcement officer with anything other than a verbal representation of their name, address and date of birth. In other words, if you are walking along a sidewalk and a police officer has reason to question you, you must verbally state your name, address and date of birth, but you can’t be arrested for refusing to show your driver’s license. (Or for that matter your fishing license, marriage license, liquor license, etc.)

Ten days ago I had a decision to make. I was presented with an offer to have my charges dropped in exchange for signing a document which asked the following of me:

  • I would not file a Section 1983 civil suit against the Brooklyn police department for infringing on my civil rights.
  • I would not make any disparaging remarks about the police department, with financial repercussions for doing so.
  • I would not discuss the details of this agreement.

These conditions were completely unacceptable to me. I wanted to fight the charges in court and I wanted to win based on the merits of my case. I felt that it was important to set a legal precedent that would help others in the future. Although I was never interested in suing the police department, signing such a document went against my principles and against the very reasons I decided to take a stand in the first place. I was mad to say the least.

In the days that followed a few things changed. First, I learned that the prosecutor was more interested in protecting the city against a civil law suit than she was in silencing my speech. Prosecutor Hillary Goldberg was willing to drop my charges and expunge my record if I promised not to sue. Although this was welcome news I still wanted to fight the charges in court in order to set a legal precedent for others.

Then, I learned that Ohio already had two legal precedents that dealt with the very issue of whether or not refusing to provide a driver’s license is grounds for obstructing official business. (Google “State v. McCrone” and “Middletown v. Hollon” for more details.) The legal precedent created by a court victory would not have filled a needed legal gap.

At this point I was stuck between two choices. Behind Door #1 was an eight to twelve month legal battle, three or more separate hearings including a jury trial, potential legal fees in the dozens of thousands of dollars and a lot of duress for my best witnesses: my family. Behind Door #2 was the immediate drop of the matter in exchange for giving up the right to seek civil damages against the police department.

At 2:00am one night I received a phone call from a family member which sealed the deal. For personal matters I can’t divulge who called or what was said, but I’ll simply state that a loved one told me something on the phone which left me with no choice. My family had become too entangled in my mess and I couldn’t put them through a lengthy and stressful legal process. My principles are important to me, but so is my family. Based on what I was told over the phone I immediately knew that I couldn’t put my family through a drawn out legal ordeal. On top of the emotional strain it was putting on my family, it would have forced my Sister to fly out from California on one or two occasions, and it would have forced my Father to cancel scheduled business trips to Europe. My family was caught in the crossfire.

I took a stand against Circuit City when I refused to show my receipt. I took a stand against Officer Arroyo when I refused to show my driver’s license. I wanted to take a stand against Prosecutor Goldberg in court, but it just wasn’t meant to be. In the end I forfeited my right to sue the police department in exchange for the matter being dropped. Considering that I never intended to sue the police department in the first place, this was a concession that I felt comfortable with.

Although he won’t publicly admit it, I’m sure that Officer Arroyo knows he made a mistake. For the record, I do not believe that Officer Arroyo is a bad person, and other than my arrest I have no reason to believe that he is a bad police officer. I think that Officer Arroyo was embarrassed and insulted when I refused to obey his unlawful command, and I think that he was not familiar enough with Ohio State law. Hopefully this incident will make him more knowledgeable about the law and more understanding of others in the future who choose to assert their rights. I think the same is true for Prosecutor Goldberg. She’s a smart woman who knows the law, and she clearly realizes that she had no case against me. However, her back was put against the wall by all of the media attention which the case received and I suspect that she felt that she had no choice but to either push forward with the charges or seek protection against a civil suit.

I wanted a verbal apology from the police department but quickly learned that this would never happen. Fortunately actions speak louder than words. Dropping my charges and expunging my record is perhaps the best form of an apology that I could receive, and it’s the apology that I’ve chosen to accept.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported on my agreement with the prosecutor in today’s issue. When I read their take on what happened I was outraged. Michael Sangiacomo of the Plain Dealer claimed that I “agreed that a police officer did nothing wrong in arresting [me] after [I] refused to show [my] driver’s license.” This is an outright lie. I never said such a thing and would never say such a thing. In fact, I’ve never even spoken with Michael Sangiacomo. He emailed me looking for a quote and I referred him to my attorney. As far as I know Michael Sangiacomo hasn’t even seen the release that I signed with the prosecutor. I consider the outcome of my legal battle to be a victory, yet today’s paper portrays it as defeat.

Understandably I received a lot of hate mail today from people who read the Cleveland Plain Dealer article and were horrified to see that I “caved” under pressure. If I was a third party to the situation I think I would have given Michael Righi a piece of my mind as well.

The article is wholly unfair, and a complete misrepresentation of the release that I signed with the prosecutor. I uploaded a PDF version of the release and I encourage you to read it and decide for yourself. Although the police department did not admit guilt in the release, nowhere in it did I claim that they were justified in their actions.

Finally, I would like to address the donations which I accepted over the past few weeks. I received a total of $5,197.23 USD after PayPal expenses. I’m still a little unsure of what my total legal fees will be, but I expect that they will be in the $7,500-$10,000 range. (I’ve already paid $7,500 to one attorney, and I’m waiting for a bill from a second attorney for related legal assistance.)

I am extremely grateful to the people that donated money. The donations represented more than just money to me. They represented emotional support in a time when it was much needed, and I’d like to thank everybody again who donated. The smallest single donation was 1 penny (a symbolic gesture), and the largest single donation was $200. Every contribution made was a pat on the back and it really helped me get through a tough couple of weeks.

That said, I have received a lot of flak over the money. Some people have accused me, an “upper middle class 26 year old”, of asking for money in the first place. Some people have gone as far as to accuse me outright of running a scam. I agreed to accept donations via PayPal because a number of people emailed me wanting to know how they could help, and I wanted to give them an easy way in which they could make themselves involved. I said from the beginning that I would donate any excess money to the ACLU. As it turned out my legal expenses were at least $2,000 more than the money donated.

In the end, I have decided to donate the entire $5,197.23 to the ACLU of Ohio.

I am doing this for a few reasons. First, I would like to end the question of my intentions once and for all. This has never been about money or attention. I stood up for my rights because they are important to me and for no other reason. Second, even if my legal fees rise to $10,000 I am fortunate enough to be in a position where I can afford this. Although it’s unjust that anybody should have to pay a dime to exert their constitutional rights, $10,000 is still a small price to pay compared to what others have sacrificed in the past and are sacrificing today. Finally, I want to do something to help prevent injustices from happening against others in the future. Although I don’t support the ACLU in all of its endeavors, I do believe that they are the best organization fighting for civil rights in the United States today. Even though the ACLU wasn’t able to help me with my ordeal, I hope that the money I send them will allow them to help others in the future.

I’ve learned more in the last three weeks than I have in the last three years. This post has only just begun to scratch the surface of what unfolded since September 1st, 2007. I have funny stories, sad stories and outright infuriating stories from the last few weeks which I hope to eventually tell you more about. Until then, thanks for your support.