Physical contact is inevitable during an arrest, but the District of Columbia Court of Appeals issued an opinion (PDF) this morning attempting to sort through sometimes "muddled" case law on when that contact crosses the line into assault.
The appellant, Antwan Buchanan, was convicted of simple assault for hitting a police officer while he was being arrested on drug charges. In order to prove simple assault, prosecutors had to show that Buchanan intended to assault the officer; a charge of assaulting a police officer, unlike simple assault, doesn't carry the burden of proving intent.
Buchanan didn't deny that he struck an officer while resisting arrest on drug charges; instead, he argued that prosecutors failed to show that he meant to hit the officer, as opposed to any contact being incidental to Buchanan’s struggle to escape. He did not appeal his conviction on the drug-related charges.
The appeals court found that the trial judge, District of Columbia Superior Court Judge John Bayly, Jr., failed to fully explain why he found intent in Buchanan’s actions. If Bayly finds that the contact “was the accidental result of appellant’s merely trying to keep his arms apart and make his body unamenable to handcuffing,” the appeals court called for him to issue a ruling of not guilty.
Representatives of the city’s Public Defender Service, which represented Buchanan, and the U.S. attorney’s office could not immediately be reached for comment.
Police investigating alleged drug activity in northeast Washington arrested Antwan Buchanan in June 2006. Buchanan resisted the arrest by rolling around and moving his arms to avoid being placed in handcuffs, according to police testimony during the bench trial.
As Buchanan moved his arms around – “a lot of pushing back and forth and elbows being thrown,” according to trial testimony included in the appellate opinion – he struck one of the officers in the torso. During the bench trial, the officer testified that he didn’t believe Buchanan was trying to deliberately strike him, but instead trying to get free.
In a concurring opinion, retired Judge Vanessa Ruiz wrote that the line between contact and assault during an arrest “is an issue that our cases have not clearly confronted and, it can fairly be said, have at times muddled.”
The trial judge, on remand, will have to be clear about what in the record during trial led him to believe that Buchanan had an intention of using violence against or causing injury to the officer, Ruiz wrote.
“Not every unwanted or unwelcome physical contact rises to the level of a criminal offense,” she wrote. “Even though many such actions may offend standards of courtesy and disappoint mothers who taught good manners, they are not criminal assaultive acts because they are not accompanied by the requisite assaultive intent.”