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Pennsylvania Police Use Hate Crime Law Against People Who Verbally Abuse Them, Dramatically Increasing Potential Jail Time

by Kevin Bliss

Catherine Roper, deputy legal director of the Pennsylvania ACLU, wrote in her blog of the recent arrests and charges of hate crimes against citizens because they used inappropriate speech to the police while being arrested or simply submitting a police report.

Roper reviewed the affidavits of probable cause that four police officers used to justify hate crime charges against their suspects. Steven Oller and Robbie Sanderson were both being arrested for their individual crimes when they allegedly responded with verbal abuse. Seneca Payne was being picked up and taken to the hospital for a “welfare check” because he was drunk and threatening to hurt himself. He verbally lashed out because police were taking him for a psychiatric evaluation. Sannetta Amoroso stopped by the police department to report her TV stolen. She became verbally abusive when the police failed to give her claim the attention she felt it deserved.

These cases had two things in common. First, all of the alleged perpetrators were in handcuffs and no longer a threat to the police. Amoroso was cuffed when she struck a police officer on the shoulder. Secondly, every one of these people will receive an up charge for the alleged crime of “ethnic intimidation,” which Roper refers to as “contempt of cop.” Designating it as a hate crime increases the potential punishment.

In Sanderson’s case, it was the only felony he committed that day and opened him up to a maximum sentence of seven years. Amoroso could receive a total of 20 years, not because she hit a police officer, but because she verbally attacked him.

Roper stated that the U.S. Supreme Court had already struck down laws that criminalize verbal attacks on police during arrests. The Court holds police to a higher degree of restraint than the average citizen because they are trained to expect verbal abuse as a part of their job. She stated that hate crimes should be reserved for serious actions intended specifically against a particular class of people. She quoted Supreme Court Justice William Brennan Jr. saying, “the freedom of individuals to verbally oppose or challenge police action without thereby risking arrest is one of the principal characteristics by which we distinguish a free nation from a police state.” 


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