CAN A DEFENDANT BE CONVICTED OF DISORDERLY CONDUCT IF HIS OR HER FIGHTING WORDS WERE AIMED AT POLICE OFFICERS?
Sometimes the black letter law passed by the legislature is unclear. The legislature can’t anticipate every possible fact scenario when they pass a law, so it lay to the courts to interpret the law and give guidance to what it means. This interpretation is called case law. When the court decides a certain meeting to the law it essentially answers a legal question. Lawyers and other courts then can rely on that ruling when they have a similar issue in their case. The following case answers the question above.
State v. Beck, 682 P.2d 137 (Kan. Ct. App. 1984).
This case addresses the following issue:
Can a defendant be convicted of disorderly conduct if his or her fighting words were aimed at police officers?
This case explored the issue of whether a defendant could be convicted of disorderly conduct based on fighting words aimed at police officers. In exploring this issue, the court held that there was no sound reason why police officers should be subjected to degrading treatment and fighting words toward a police officer could be enough to convict an individual of disorderly conduct. Id. at 139.
In this case, two police officers were dispatched to the defendant’s house at 2:00 a.m. Id. at 138. Upon arriving at the house, the two officers observed the defendant on the second-floor landing of the residence. Id. At that time, the defendant said to one of the officers, “What the f*** are you doing here?” Id. The officers then advised the defendant that they were called to a disturbance. Id. The defendant then said, “Come up here and I’ll f*** you.” Id. Throughout this encounter, the officers could smell a moderate amount of alcohol upon the defendant. Id. Meanwhile, a woman told officers that she was having a domestic problem with the defendant. Id. Upon hearing the woman, the defendant began to become abusive with the woman and told the officers to leave the premises. Id. One of the officers then told the defendant that they could stay as long as the woman wanted them to. Id. Following this statement, the defendant said, “f*** you” towards the officer. Id. Finally, the officers placed the defendant under arrest for the use of fighting words. Id. After a brief struggle and placing handcuffs on the defendant, the defendant spit in one of the officer’s face. Id. Additionally, after being taken to the police vehicle, the defendant kicked and broke the rear taillight on the vehicle. Id. At trial, the court found that the defendant’s comments were fighting words and convicted him of disorderly conduct. Id. at 138-39. The defendant appealed the decision to the Court of Appeals of Kansas. Id. at 139.
On appeal, the defendant argued that the charge was based only on language, and the language he employed did not constitute “fighting words.” Id. at 138. In making this argument, the defendant stated that the words were not “fighting words” because they were aimed at police officers who were used to such language or worse and were trained to restrain their natural impulse to fight back when insulted. Id. at 139. In addressing this argument, the court noted that to be fighting words the defendant’s language must have been such as to tend to provoke an assault or other immediate breach of the peace by the officers. Id. Therefore, the court rejected the notion that a defendant could say anything they wanted to a police officer without them becoming “fighting words.” Id. With this in mind, the court acknowledged that different jurisdictions were split on this issue. Id. However, in expressing their view on the subject, the court stated the following, “While it is obvious that not every abusive statement directed toward police officers would be sufficiently disturbing or provocative to justify arrest for disorderly conduct, there is no sound reason why officers must be subjected to degrading treatment such as present here, language that goes far beyond what any other citizen might reasonably be expected to endure.” Id.
In conclusion, a defendant can be convicted of disorderly conduct due to fighting words aimed at a police officer. Id.