Updated 12/16 at 8:39 a.m.
Terrance Crossland was mowing the lawn and smoking a cigarette when he and his cousin were stopped by police in northeast Washington in April. Police later acknowledged that neither man was doing anything unlawful, but because they were investigating a string of recent crimes, police nevertheless asked them to put their hands on a fence for a weapons pat-down.
Crossland protested and the encounter escalated quickly, and Crossland was later charged with assaulting a police officer. In a District of Columbia Court of Appeals opinion (PDF) published today, the court upheld Crossland's conviction, but had strong words for the police officers involved.
Senior Judge Frank Schwelb wrote in a concurring opinion that he agreed with Crossland’s attorney that the police were being "rewarded" for what Schwelb characterized as the officers’ “patently unconstitutional conduct.” Schwelb wrote that he was bound to uphold the conviction because case law doesn’t permit individuals to use violence against police – even in resisting unlawful conduct – but he instructed the U.S. attorney’s office to tell the police that what they did was wrong.
“If anything good is to come from this unfortunate street encounter between the police and a citizen, it should be an end to the unconstitutional police conduct revealed beyond peradventure by this record,” Schwelb wrote. “If this hope is naive and unrealistic, then to that extent we are less the land of the free than we would otherwise be.”
Crossland’s attorney, Rockville, Md.-based solo practitioner Regina Michaels, did not immediately return a request for comment. The U.S. attorney’s office declined to comment and the Metropolitan Police Department was not immediately available.
Crossland appealed his conviction on two grounds. First, he claimed that prosecutors failed to prove that he hit the officers first; according to the opinion, Crossland called witnesses at trial who described seeing one officer hit Crossland without provocation. Second, Crossland said the trial judge made a mistake in denying his motion for a judgment of acquittal. He had moved for acquittal as a sanction against the officers’ violation of his Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure.
During the bench trial, Superior Court Judge Florence Pan credited the officer’s testimony that Crossland hit first. The appellate judges wrote that in the absence of any evidence that Pan made a mistake in crediting the officer’s testimony, they were bound to uphold the conviction.
Responding to Crossland’s argument that Pan made a mistake in denying the motion for judgment of acquittal, the appellate judges wrote that unless the police then tried to use any evidence they seized from the unlawful search against him, he didn’t have grounds for acquittal.
Furthermore, the judges wrote, the law didn’t give him leeway to use force in resisting the officers’ behavior, even if it was unconstitutional.
Associate Judge John Fisher and Phyllis Thompson also heard the case. Thompson wrote the opinion for the panel.