Spokane Sheriff’s Memo on Unmarked Vehicles and “Obstruction”

The use of unmarked vehicles by law enforcement for routine police work and wanton arrests for “obstruction” are hot-button issues for people who call themselves “Constitutionalists”. A 74-year old local pastor was killed by a Spokane Sheriff’s deputy who was sitting on his property in an unmarked police car.  People have been threatened with arrest (and some actually went to jail) for asking questions and videotaping police encounters.

In response to my Public Records Request, Spokane County Sheriff’s Office mailed me some documents. Among them, I was surprised to find a 2-page memo dated January 20, 2015 that touches on both issues. It reads:

Recently, law enforcement personnel have been approached while in the middle of a call-for-service or traffic stop. Based upon these events, coupled with other societal events (protests) throughout the United States, the training unit offers the following information. If any Sheriff’s Office commissioned Personnel is approached by a person(s) who wish to discuss the legality of the vehicle being used for “official purposes,” or, what “rights” they wish to exercise in order to enter a secure premises (PSB, U-City, etc.), please consider the following:

Per our mission, we will treat all people with dignity and respect. Additionally, if any person hinders, delays, or obstructs you in the discharge of your duties, you have the authority to make an arrest for obstructing a law enforcement officer. (See RCW below).

If possible, give the person(s) a warning that they are “obstructing” and that they are subject to arrest if they continue. A call for back-up is highly recommended, and if appropriate, make an arrest.

[Full text of the memo (PDF)]

No doubt the memo was the Spokane County Sheriff’s reaction to Gavin Seim’s video of a citizen making a traffic stop on a deputy for driving an unmarked vehicle. The video gathered well over 5 million views, and received local press coverage. Grant County Sheriff Tom Jones explained in a Facebook message that the patrol car the deputy was driving was awaiting vinyl graphics to be installed.

Unlike Sheriff Jones, who admitted that the car should have been marked, the memorandum reveals that Spokane County Sheriff Knezovich responded in a characteristic heavy-handed fashion, by advising his deputies to threaten citizens with arrest for exercising their constitutionally protected right to question the actions of their peace officers.

It is clear that the memo played a key role in my arrest on June 24. When I asked why my niece was being detained and what she was being charged with, the deputies ordered me to leave and threatened to arrest me for obstruction if I didn’t comply. I could not abandon a teenage girl with two male deputies on a deserted highway, so they acted out on their threat, and took me to jail — just as the memo prescribed.

Free Speech Is Not “Obstruction”

The Washington State Supreme Court made it clear in their “STATE OF WASHINGTON v. E.J.J.” decision, that you cannot be charged with obstruction for merely speaking:

The obstruction statute provides, “A person is guilty of obstructing a law enforcement officer if the person willfully hinders, delays, or obstructs any law enforcement officer in the discharge of his or her official powers or duties.” RCW 9A.76.020(1). To save the obstruction statute from being unconstitutionally overbroad in a First Amendment setting, we have construed the statute narrowly. Our cases have consistently required conduct in order to establish obstruction of an officer. State v. Williams, 171Wn.2d474, 485, 251 P.3d 877 (2011). In other words, a conviction for obstruction may not be based solely on an individual’s speech because the speech itself is constitutionally protected. This review is also consistent with the approach established by the United States Supreme Court. See Street v. New York, 394 U.S. 576, 578, 89 S. Ct. 1354, 22 L. Ed. 2d 572 (1969).

The Supreme Court reversed the conviction, noting that “obstruction statutes may not be used to limit citizens’ right to express verbal criticism, even abusive criticism, at police officers” and quoting from another US Supreme Court decision:

“[t]he freedom of individuals verbally to oppose or challenge police action without thereby risking arrest is one of the principal characteristics by which we distinguish a free nation from a police state.

When I asked Sheriff Knezovich via a Facebook message if he knew about the decision, he dismissed it with:

[..] this case was not in affect at the time you were pulled over.  It was filed June 25, 2015 you were arrested on June 24,2015.  No one knew of it and therefore the Deputies can not be held accountable for a new court decision they never knew about.  So this is really a pointless discussion.

Two months later, a woman who filmed the arrest of a pro-life protester was herself threatened with arrest — you guessed it — for “obstruction”.

The authoritarian Sheriff spits on the rights of Spokane citizens and violates state law, while gloating about his election record (70% of voters foolishly cast their ballots for Knezovich). If you care about your rights, I urge you to contact the Sheriff’s office, and demand that:

  1. They use unmarked vehicles only for undercover police work, as the law and common sense demand.
  2. Issue a correction to the memo, advising the deputies that a person may not be threatened with arrest for exercising their First Amendment right to free speech.

Also, please take the time to educate your friends and family about these issues. You can start by sharing this blog on your Facebook page.

P.S. As the murder of Pastor Creach so clearly demonstrates, using unmarked vehicles for non-undercover police work is reckless and fatally dangerous. A plain reading of the law leads one to the obvious conclusion that such use is also illegal. However, instead of admitting his mistake, Sheriff Knezovich added insult to injury by successfully lobbying the Spokane County commissioners to pass an ordinance authorizing the use of unmarked patrol cars.