Duty to Tweet?

Josh Blackman points to this Newsday story:

An album signing … for teen sensation Justin Bieber at Roosevelt Field mall was canceled because a crowd of 3,000 young girls and their parents started aggressively pushing and shoving, police said…. Five people were taken to area hospitals with minor injuries.

Police arrested a senior vice president from Bieber’s label, Island Def Jam Records, James A. Roppo, 44, of Hoboken, N.J., saying he hindered their crowd-control efforts by not cooperating… [C]harges that could include criminal nuisance, endangering the welfare of a minor and obstructing government administration, Smith said.

“We asked for his help in getting the crowd to go away by sending out a Twitter message,” Smith said. “By not cooperating with us we feel he put lives in danger and the public at risk.” …

A few thoughts:

1. As I understand it, there is historical precedent for a general duty to help the police on demand — consider the sheriff’s power to summon a posse comitatus. But I’m not certain that failure to obey such an order would constitute “obstructing government administration,” or that such an order extends to all help (for instance, as I understand it the police can’t just order you to help the investigation by revealing what you know, but must instead get the prosecutor to get a grand jury subpoena), or that such a duty still survives in New York.

2. I take it that the real premise of the prosecution is likely to be not a general duty to help the police on demand, but rather a specific duty to help the police solve a problem for which you were in part responsible. And in fact there is a criminal law doctrine that says that even though it’s generally not a crime to refuse to help someone escape danger, it may be a crime if you caused the danger in the first place.

This is especially clear if you were negligent in creating a danger, but some courts even take the view that this is so if you created a danger nonnegligently. If, for instance, you (1) hit someone with your car — perhaps even nonnegligently — and (2) you then negligently or deliberately fail to help him, and (3) this failure causes his death, then you might be liable for negligent or deliberate homicide. And that would be so as a matter of traditional common-law principles, even without a specific hit-and-run statute.

At the same time, while this might justify the criminal nuisance charge or the endangering the welfare of a child charge, it’s not clear to me that the failure to help the police constitutes obstructing governmental administration [UPDATE: I originally incorrectly wrote “obstruction of justice,” here and in the next sentence] — especially if the prosecutor can’t prove up either of the other two crimes, so that the prosecution rests solely on a failure to help the police. I’d love to hear, though, from people who are knowledgeable about this sort of law, and who have specific pointers to relevant precedents.

[UPDATE: Commenter Just Dropping By pointed me to the New York obstructing governmental administration statute, but the text of the statute isn’t terribly enlightening. The statute bars, among other things, “intentionally obstruct[ing or] impair[ing] … the administration of law or other governmental function … by means of intimidation, physical force or interference, or by means of any independently unlawful act, or by means of interfering, whether or not physical force is involved, with … telecommunications systems owned or operated by the [government] … or by means of releasing a dangerous animal under circumstances evincing the actor’s intent that the animal obstruct governmental administration.” So the question is whether failure to help constitutes “physical force of interference,” something on which I could find no New York precedents.]

3. There’s also the question whether the First Amendment, which generally protects people against compulsions to speak, also prevents the government from ordering Roppo to publicly exhort people to do something. The one time that I know of where the compelled speech defense has been raised in the related context of a (limited) duty to report a crime to the police, the court just casually rejected the First Amendment argument. See State v. Grover, 437 N.W.2d 60, 64 (Minn. 1989). But I’m not sure whether the matter might be different when someone is being required to speak to the public at large.

In any case, these are just a few tentative thoughts, based on the press account that I’ve seen — if anyone has more specific knowledge about either the facts or the law, I’d love to hear it.

Powered by WordPress. Designed by Woo Themes