Disorderly Conduct in D.C.: An Analysis of a Case Involving Pepin Tuma

Questions has been raised regarding the scope of the law for disturbing the peace or disorderly conduct in the District of Columbia, partly because of the events that occurred in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Colbert King, a columnist for The Washington Post, in a follow-up column to his previous column, discussed some complaints against the police filed in D.C.’s Office of Police Complaints to demonstrate the abuse of the charge of disorderly conduct.

I think that Mr. King could be on to something, but the cases have to be considered individually. For example, Pepin Tuma, a Washington, D.C. attorney, wrote about his experience about being charged with disorderly conduct after uttering a statement, “I hate the police,” at police officers involved in a investigation with another person. The facts of his case while seemingly clear-cut are simultaneously disconcerting as well. Tuma’s professional identity of a practicing lawyer weighs heavily in the analysis of his situation. I think that a person who is admitted to law school, studies the law in depth for three years, studies for, takes, and passes the bar examination, and is admitted to practice law within a jurisdiction as an officer of the court has a higher standard of behavior with regard to reasonable responses to witnessing police officers engaged in an investigation.

Tuma stated that while he was discussing the Cambridge, MA case with friends, he approached an area with police officers seemingly involved in a traffic stop. Tuma, from across the street, uttered in a tone of voice to be heard by officers on the scene, “I hate the police.” One officer that heard the statement, James Culp, questioned his conduct and placed him under arrest for disorderly conduct. Tuma, a gay man, stated that the officer said, “shut up, faggot.”

Tuma argues that he was simply offering his opinion about the police. However, the time, place, and manner in which he voiced his opinion could have negatively affected the police officers in the performance of their duties in the investigation with which they were involved.

Something in this case seems wrong. Because of this, Tuma’s case may not be as illustrative of abuse as he thinks. Tuma, a practicing attorney in the District of Columbia, is an officer of the court and should conduct himself appropriately when encountering situations involving the activity of law enforcement officers. His statement, “I hate the police,” is covered under the First Amendment. However, the time, place, and manner of his speech is a topic that is worthy of investigation. As an attorney, Tuma could have written or called his D.C. Councilmember or other appropriate authority with any concerns he may have about law enforcement officers in D.C.

While Tuma attempts to minimize the investigation of the police officers as a routine traffic stop, any traffic stop can become hazardous as well. Could Tuma’s statement at that time have provoked violence on the scene of the investigation? This is a fair question in analyzing Tuma’s behavior on U Street, N.W. in July. A police officer raised a similar argument in a case in the D.C.’s Office of Police Complaints.

The statement attributed to the officer would be in poor form and unprofessional, if true. I am sure that the officer will deny he uttered that statement. So with Tuma’s assertion and the officers likely denial, it would be difficult to prove that the statement was made.

While the consideration of the use of disorderly conduct is good, the use of Tuma’s incident as an example of abuse of the use of the charge of disorderly conduct is questionable because of the time, place, and manner of his conduct. Tuma’s professional status of an attorney, leads a reasonable person to ponder why he did not conduct himself more reasonably that day on U Street when observing police officers conduct an investigation.

The charges likely will be dismissed, but it will be a close case if a Tuma files a complaint of harassment against the police department through the Office of Police Complaints.

Post script

Disorderly conduct in the District of Columbia is defined at section 22-1321 [search the D.C. Code at the D.C. Council’s website].

“Whoever, with intent to provoke a breach of the peace, or under circumstances such that a breach of the peace may be occasioned thereby: (1) acts in such a manner as to annoy, disturb, interfere with, obstruct, or be offensive to others; (2) congregates with others on a public street and refuses to move on when ordered by the police; (3) shouts or makes a noise either outside or inside a building during the nighttime to the annoyance or disturbance of any considerable number of persons; (4) interferes with any person in any place by jostling against such person or unnecessarily crowding such person or by placing a hand in the proximity of such person’s pocketbook, or handbag; or (5) causes a disturbance in any streetcar, railroad car, omnibus, or other public conveyance, by running through it, climbing through windows or upon the seats, or otherwise annoying passengers or employees, shall be fined not more than $250 or imprisoned not more than 90 days, or both.”

DC Office of Police Complaints

2005 complaint decision