Law & Disorder
As she sat in the back of the Minneapolis police squad car, Kaitlin Hallett quickly realized that her year as a litigator for the St. Paul law firm Winthrop & Weinstine wasn't going to do her any good. She didn't practice criminal law, so she thought back to law school for pointers on constructing her defense. As she lost feeling in her cuffed hands, her mind flashed to the course on criminal procedure at the University of Minnesota: the echoing hall; her professor, with his ponytail and Sixties-radical anecdotes; and one case study after another on felony offenses. The only problem was that the class hadn't covered misdemeanor statutes related to noisy parties and arguing with officers.
Realizing that no brief, motion, or objection was likely to save her from spending the night in jail, Hallett decided to take immediate action: She screamed. She screamed because her wrists were numb and the air inside the cruiser was bad and the officer who had put her in the car 15 minutes before was now ignoring her. She screamed because she couldn't figure out how she'd gotten into this mess.
After all, she hadn't even been planning to go to the party; it was only at the invitation of a law-school friend that she'd joined the gathering of some three dozen thirtysomething professionals, about a third of whom were attorneys (and one of whom had brought along this reporter). They wandered about the house in North Minneapolis's Waite Park neighborhood noshing on fruit and brie, sipping bottles of Summit and James Page. In a fenced back yard ringed by citronella candles, they'd traded "So, what do you do"s in the humid night air as Duane Jarvis's roots rock played on a stereo inside.
But the festivities came to an abrupt end when four squad cars showed up at 12:30 a.m. According to a report by the officers at the scene, "voices and music could be heard approximately a half block away," prompting them to order everybody to leave. Most of the guests obeyed in a hurry. But a few figured that the cops had picked the wrong party to bust. "We weren't smoking crack, we pay taxes, and I've made a lot of improvement to my property," says the event's host, Sandy Shipp, who works as a computer engineer. "We were just sitting around having a couple of beers, and I wanted to keep the party going." Shipp asked one of her friends to discuss the matter with the police.
That man, who insisted that his name not be used, would not discuss the matter with City Pages except through a written statement. "I provided the officers with my driver's license and business card demonstrating that I am an assistant county attorney in an exurban metro county," it says. "I politely inquired of the officers whether there was some way to handle the incident other than by ordering everyone to leave. The officers' response was 'Leave now or you will receive a citation for violating the party ordinance.' I inquired as to what exactly this party ordinance was and was promptly given a citation for violating Minneapolis ordinance 389.65."
That statute prohibits "a gathering of more than one person between the hours of [10:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m.] that would cause significant discomfort or annoyance to a reasonable person of normal sensitivity." None of the officers at the scene returned City Pages' calls. But Jack Kelly, a sergeant in the Minneapolis Police Department's Second Precinct, says if tickets were issued, his officers must have determined that that was the case. "People want to sleep and have a right to enjoy their sleep," he adds.
Just what is "reasonable" is a question that has kept philosophers and linguists up nights for centuries--and the same goes for the legal community, says Mark Anfinson, a Minneapolis-based lawyer who specializes in First Amendment matters. "Any law that's based on the perception of a reasonable person is along the continuum of reading tea leaves," he says. "What in the world is the standard?"
But that, adds Anfinson, is probably not an issue you'd want to raise with an officer in the middle of the night. "Once you've been booked and taken to jail, the question of who's reasonable becomes sort of an abstract question," he says. "If you go too much beyond 'Yes, sir,' 'No, sir,' you get into interpretive country, and that's not necessarily where you want to be."
Hallett discovered as much when she challenged the officers' right to bust the party, using much the same argument that had netted the prosecutor a citation. "Leave the premises now or you'll be ticketed," she says an officer told her. "What are you going to do, arrest me?" she snapped back. Next thing she knew, she was in the squad car headed for the Hennepin County Jail, where she was booked for violating the party ordinance, fingerprinted, and held until the next morning.
Hallett says it won't be the last Minneapolis's finest see of her. In addition to fighting her ticket in court, she says, she plans to file a complaint with the Minneapolis Civilian Review Authority. "I think [the officer] treated me unfairly," she says, "and if there's a pattern with her behavior, the police should be able to take corrective action."
According to Shipp, she and the other four partygoers cited also plan to contest the misdemeanor charges, and some have considered taking further legal action. The anonymous prosecutor will only say, "I'm leaving my options open."
If the cases do go to court, they may represent a first. The MPD does not track misdemeanor citations, including those under the part ordinance. But Carol Lansing, an assistant city attorney who is familiar with the incidents says noise-violation cases rarely go to trial, and she has never heard of a lawyer spending time in jail on such a charge.
Gordon Stewart, director of Minneapolis's Legal Rights Center, also says he rarely sees clients contesting citations. "Most people we deal with, especially poor people, generally seem to be intimidated by a police uniform and do whatever the officers want," he says. "The people we counsel just pay the ticket, they don't think they have any other options. But this time they picked on some lawyers who know their rights."
Whether those rights include the prerogative to argue with officers, however, is yet to be determined: Lansing says she is prepared to do whatever it takes to defend the police action. "The standards of the law are not different for people depending on their job. Just because you're an attorney doesn't mean that you should have any more influence when an officer responds to a complaint." And rumors about the relationship between cops and lawyers notwithstanding, the Second Precinct's Kelly adds, "I take pride in the integrity and objectiveness of my officers. They were not picking on them because they're attorneys."
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