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Citizens in California Can No Longer be Prosecuted for Refusing to Risk Their Lives Assisting Police

In 2014, Norma and Jim Gund were tricked by a Trinity County sheriff’s deputy into responding to a 911 call that the deputy said was “weather related.” Instead, the Gunds were confronted by a maniac who had just murdered two of their neighbors, and Norma was viciously sliced open. The Gunds sued the Trinity County Sheriff’s Office (“TCSO”) for $10 million. But the TCSO invoked the California Posse Comitatus Act of 1872 (“Act”). Under the Act it is a criminal offense — punishable by a fine up to $1,000 — for refusing to respond to a police officer’s call for assistance.

The TCSO claimed the Act made the Gunds de facto employees of the state, despite the fact they had no choice and received no paycheck. A Trinity County judge dismissed the lawsuit in favor of the TCSO’s argument that the Gunds were eligible only for worker’s compensation because they “volunteered” to perform “active law enforcement service.”

But, in September 2019, Governor Gavin Newsome signed a bill striking down the Act.

Senate Bill 192 was sponsored by Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Los Angeles. The California State Sheriff’s Association opposed the bill, arguing there are situations where a peace officer might look to private citizens for assistance.

Apparently, the legislature and governor thought otherwise. The Act was a relic from America’s early days, and it was enacted to compel citizens to assist with enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act. Unfortunately, most other states have similar laws making it a crime to refuse assisting a police officer.

Other states, like Maryland, will incarcerate people for refusing to assist police. 


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