Home » Blog » Criminal Defense » The Constitution substantially limits the “lawful orders” police may make

The Constitution substantially limits the “lawful orders” police may make

Call Us: 703-383-1100


Bill of Rights. (From the public domain.)

Thanks to a listserv member for citing to a 1965 Supreme Court decision that underlines the unconstitutional overbreadth of statutes criminalizing one’s not obeying a "lawful order" of a police officer, where the statute does nothing to narrow such orders to such factors as eliminating blockages to pedestrians’ safe passage on sidewalks. Shuttlesworth v. Birmingham, 382 U.S. 87 (1965).

Shuttlesworth v. Birmingham was issued when racism remained extremely virulent in Alabama, a particularly ripe time for police selectively to engage in race-based targeting with so-called "lawful orders" to move on or to lower the volume of one’s car radio. Continuing into today, arrests for violating such orders can violate First Amendment rights to freely assemble, to demonstrate, and to disseminate information. Such arrests often are used as a pretext next to search people, and to harass through an arrest for violating the order.

Police are given awesome powers to stop, arrest, search, shoot, and use other physical force. The more we overcriminalize society, the more we will see the abuse of police power by police and by our federal, state and local governments that are coming too close to being police states. Heavy power inevitably gets abused. Police are not typically a bunch of ACLU civil libertarians, but instead, at best, practice the law-and-order mentality that is drillled into them from the day they start police academy training.