California hasn’t exactly earned a reputation as a bastion of freedom lately. But every now and then, even the state that gives us such gems as free abortion pills on campus and an ever-expanding list of people to disarm is bound to get something right. The progressive governor of the Golden State, Gavin Newsom, signed a recently passed bill that ends a long-standing law that criminalizes refusing to help the police.
Newsom and his progressive pals in the legislature are praised by the left and criticized by the right for this, as one might expect. But regardless of whether this is some evil anti-cop leftist plot or not, lovers of liberty should take a step back and look at this from a more objective stance. What does this law actually do, and is it fair to obligate the people to help an armed, trained, legally empowered police force that isn’t even required to protect them in return?
The California Posse Comitatus Act of 1872 made it a crime for any “able-bodied person of 18 years of age or older” to ignore or refuse an officer’s call for assistance in arresting someone.
When Being a Good Neighbor Goes Wrong
This law isn’t cited often, but rare as it may be, it has been used. The Sacramento Bee reported a situation that serves, perhaps, as a prime example of the worst-case scenario. In 2011, Jim and Norma Gund received a phone call from Corporal Ron Whitman of Trinity County Sheriff’s Office. The Gunds lived in Kettenpom, a former timber outpost 250 miles north of San Francisco. Norma told The Bee that Whitman asked her to check on a neighbor, who had called 911 and then hung up. As an extremely rural area, the Gunds were much closer to the caller’s home than the nearest law enforcement officer. It was likely no big deal and just something to do with the spring snowstorm that was blowing in, he allegedly told her.
The Gunds drove over to see their neighbor. Norma approached the house while Jim stayed in the truck. She was met by a stranger, who said the residents were fine, then escorted Norma in to see. What she saw was anything but fine. The woman who lived there was dead, as was her boyfriend; the killer had already wrapped their remains in plastic. He then shocked Norma with a stun gun and slashed her face and throat with a knife. When Jim went inside to check on his wife, he too was attacked.
The Gunds managed to fight him off and get to the hospital, while the knife-wielding murder led the police on a high-speed chase that ended with him hitting a tree and dying.
When they sued the sheriff’s office for putting their lives in danger to do the job of the police, they lost thanks to the Posse Comitatus Act of 1872. The sheriff’s office initially denied sending the Gunds to investigate, but later admitted that they did in court. The county judge dismissed the case in 2014. The county argued that the Gunds were only entitled to workers’ compensation because they volunteered to perform active law enforcement service. The Gunds appealed, but that, too, failed. “(The Gunds) knew they were responding to a 911 call, and therefore they were assisting in active law enforcement,” the appellate court judge wrote. “Although the deputy misrepresented that the 911 call was likely weather-related and omitted facts suggesting potential criminal activity, the deputy’s misrepresentations and omissions are irrelevant. … All that matters is that the plaintiffs knew they were responding to a 911 call, the nature of which was not certain.”
Law or otherwise, good neighbors look out for each other. In the wide-open fields and back wood area where the police are likely several minutes away at best – assuming they even know how to get to your house – rural folk know they depend on themselves and their neighbors. But the Gunds were required by law to do the job of the very police force that wasn’t required by law to take care of them in return.
To Serve and Protect Whom?
Multiple courts – including the Supreme Court on at least a couple of occasions – have ruled that the police are not obligated by the Constitution or any state or federal law to protect an individual’s life, even if the officer knows harm is coming. Rather than dig up every occurrence, let’s just look at one of the most recent and tragic.
The school district and sheriff’s office in Broward County, Fl, home of the now-infamous Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, were sued by 15 survivors. But judge Beth Bloom ruled that Scot Peterson had no obligation to confront Nikolas Cruz – despite the fact that he was the officer on duty at the school at the time of the shooting and the fact that the law forbids anyone but the police from carrying a firearm at the school to defend themselves or the students. He was quite literally the only person at the school allowed by law to carry a gun – and he was both armed and trained in addressing active shooter situations – but he had no obligation to stop Cruz from killing 17 students and staff members and wounding 17 others.
If a police officer assigned to a school isn’t obligated to protect the unarmed staff and students, then who is?
The Right of the People
The answer, of course, is the individual.
Democratic state Sen. Bob Hertzberg of Los Angeles was the mastermind behind this bill. He called the old law “a vestige of a bygone era,” a law belonging in the history books, not the law books. Hertzberg may have lurched uncontrollably into the right thing for the wrong reasons. As Liberty Nation’s legal affairs editor, Scott D. Cosenza, Esq., explains:
“Courts in the US have long held police have no legal duty to help the public. Requiring the public to assist police under threat of law, however, is not a law we frequently see, and for good reason. It is likely unconstitutional. Sworn officers with qualified immunity, generous salaries, Cadillac health plans, and defined benefit pensions have zero duty to lift a finger to aid a citizen in need. Knowing this, it makes it all the more preposterous that citizens themselves would be required to assist officers.”
Many judges have ruled over the years that each individual’s safety is that individual’s responsibility. This, too, is correct. It’s exactly why we have enshrined in the founding documents the right to life and liberty – and the right to keep and bear arms to defend both. It is not the job of the police to protect your life – it’s yours. But it’s also not your job to protect an officer as he or she attempts to make an arrest – it’s the officer’s.
There are many cops across this nation who would put their lives in danger to protect those who can’t protect themselves – but they are the courageous men and women who would step up to defend the defenseless with or without a badge. Skeptical? Just look at all the stories of non-police good guys with guns – and every case that ends with a judge ruling that the police don’t have to save you. Gavin Newsom and his Democrat buddies may very well care more about criminals and illegals than law-abiding citizens or cops, but in this one case, they did the right thing – whether for the right reasons or not.
Read more from James Fite.