I’ve been an attorney practicing criminal law for over 16 years. Until last week, however, I had no idea that the Penal Code explicitly makes it a crime to disturb a meeting. I suspect I’m not the only California lawyer who has labored under such ignorance.
I learned about Penal Code section 403 when I read that the Orange County District Attorney has charged 11 University of California students with conspiracy to violate the statute. They are accused of being part of the UC Irvine Muslim Student Union’s planned effort to shout down Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren when he spoke on campus last year.
Here’s one of several YouTube clips showing what happened:
District Attorney Rackauckas’s press release concerning his decision to prosecute the Hecklegate 11 on misdemeanor charges can be read here.
As expected whenever the First Amendment is at issue, ACLU types are screaming that Rackauckas is causing the sky to fall. One lawyer breathlessly predicts that it will “intimidate students in Orange County and across the state and discourage them from engaging in any controversial speech or protest for fear of criminal charges.”
If Rackauckas’s decision was so intimidating, you’d think that it would have caused the Hecklegate sympathizers to fear protesting it at his office headquarters. But that’s not the case:
The prosecution may well discourage some people from trying to shut down a lawful public speaking event, but I think that is Rackauckas’s point. If he accomplishes it, our society won’t suffer.
Other critics of this prosecution call it a waste of resources. These criticisms are more on the mark. Given that the University has already punished these students individually for their disruption, and collectively suspended the Muslim Student Union, the most rational thing to do would be leave it alone. I doubt that many people in the audience that day reacted to the protest by thinking: “I’m in the middle of a crime scene! A criminal conspiracy is unfolding around me!” There is no reason to give the protesters more attention a year later by alleging that their actions were a crime against the state.
The accusation of government officials “wasting tax dollars” is thrown around so frequently that it loses meaning. But I’ve been in the middle of these media cases. It is likely that hundreds of attorney and investigator hours have been spent researching and investigating the case, strategizing its legal and political implications in “10th floor” meetings where Rackauckas’s executive suite is housed, and calling witnesses before the grand jury. Many more hours will be spent in court hearings, since the defendant (as protestors are wont to do) will take up a great deal of court resources in an effort – which will undoubtedly fail – to show that the prosecution violates their constitutional right to free speech and/or that it should be dismissed since they are the hapless victims of selective prosecution. A judge, multiple bailiffs, and court staff will be prevented from attending other court business during every hour that this case is heard.
If this matter were put to a public referendum, is there any way the voters would choose to spend their tax dollars seeing it through, as compared to avoiding the layoff of a firefighter or teacher? No way. While this vote will never take place, the comparison isn’t mere hyperbole. The annual salary of a public servant is substantially less than what this prosecution will likely cost before its conclusion.
Disproportionate costs are sometimes unavoidable in the criminal justice system. For example, when a community lunatic is cited for stealing a ketchup bottle from a school cafeteria, the prosecution can’t simply dismiss the case because the defendant wants his jury trial. The cost of the trial may be extravagant in comparison to the harm society suffered, but a prosecutor can’t simply decline to prosecute petty theft cases, or dismiss them whenever a defendant demands that the prosecution prove its case.
But this isn’t one of those unavoidable situations. Unlike petty theft, heckling is conduct that doesn’t typically result in a criminal prosecution. The decision to prosecute this case, knowing full well the resources it would cause our overburdened justice system, was quite intentional.
Will the Board of Supervisors will be less sympathetic to Rackauckas next time he comes before them, claiming that his office needs an infusion of funds to avoid layoffs that would jeopardize public safety?