Igor Greenwald: Black eye for civil liberties in state

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"I'm moving."

"Move."

The Massachusetts State Police trooper is holding the young woman by the elbow, and in those first few seconds of the video, shot last month at a protest against a gas pipeline in Sandisfield, you get an inkling how it's going to end.

"I can walk on my own feet," she says, twice, walking in the same direction as the officer but turning around at the same time to get her arm out of his grasp.

He points ahead and mouths a couple of indistinct words and then another "move."

"Don't touch me," the woman says, as the trooper gets hold of her again, this time with his left hand. "Don't touch me," she repeats, and in the next instant she's shoved hard to the ground and straddled.

Soon her hands are cuffed behind her back. "You're under arrest," the officer intones over the outcry from the other protesters.

Two days later, Carla Colon-Aponte would be charged with assault and battery on a police officer for allegedly "swinging her arm back" to push the trooper's arm away, according to the State Police.

She was unlucky to run into an officer so obviously lacking in self-control that day. But it could have been worse. She could have been shoved to the ground a few months from now, and her assailant might have twisted an ankle or broken a toe. And then Colon-Aponte might conceivably face the charge of an assault and battery on a police officer resulting in serious injury.

Misguided bill

That crime would be punishable by a new mandatory minimum of a year in prison under the criminal justice reform bill recently approved by the Massachusetts Senate.

In Massachusetts, assault and battery is defined as merely unwelcome contact — just a touch will do — and serious injury caused even indirectly by such contact won't need to be permanent to threaten the accused with a year behind bars.

One wouldn't need to be convicted to be hurt by the provision. Anyone drawing the ire of the police would face the threat of such a charge. That's a category that still includes too many peaceful protesters and victims of police misconduct.

The Justice Department's investigation into the rampant abuses committed by Ferguson, Mo. police officers tells of a man who rushed to the scene of an accident in which his girlfriend had been badly hurt. When the police arrived they told him to move away and arrested him as soon as he objected. He was charged with assault on a police officer, among other violations.

That was in May 2014, the same month a 15-year-old Washington state girl was charged with assaulting an officer who pulled her hair, choked and tased her after stopping her and her brother for cutting across a mall parking lot on their bikes. She'd made an ineffectual attempt to pedal off before the officer attacked, his actions caught on tape.

This year a 19-year-old Bakersfield, Calif., woman was charged with aggravated assault on an officer after she was mistaken for a much older, taller and heavier male suspect. She'd had the temerity to ask whether the officer who wanted to search her backpack had a warrant, and alleges that was all it took to get punched by the officer and then mauled by a police dog. The department ruled the use of force justified. After all criminal charges against her were dropped in August the woman filed an official complaint alleging excessive force and civil rights violations.

Backers of the proposed new mandatory minimum sentencing provision in Massachusetts claim it would protect police officers from a growing threat. Most Democratic lawmakers seem to view it as an acceptable trade-off for the elimination of mandatory minimums for low-level drug crimes, along with other progressive reform provisions.

But mandatory minimums are always a raw deal, for taxpayers as well as defendants. Otherwise, why would the Legislature not be using them to discourage rape and attempted murder? The answer is that they're already discouraged by reasonable sentencing guidelines and qualified judges. This is just pandering for the votes of authoritarians.

Response to non-problem

The provision was previously included in legislation proposed by Gov. Charlie Baker, and inserted into the criminal justice reform bill by the Senate minority leader. Sixteen Democratic senators sided with Republicans to pass it, and only six were willing to vote No on a reconsideration roll call. State Sen. Adam Hinds was among those who changed their vote.

The final margin of 31-6 in favor of a heavy-handed response to a non-existent problem suggests the measure could well become law. No officer would be safer as a result. And civil liberties will suffer a black eye alongside this state's progressive reputation.

Igor Greenwald is a member of Civil Liberties Pittsfield, an informal advocacy group.


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