Standing in Front of Your Own House (While Black): Washington City Paper Investigates “Incommoding” Arrests

Standing in Front of Your Own House (While Black): Washington City Paper Investigates “Incommoding” Arrests May 27, 2015

The chitlins were making Alex Dennis sick. Dennis, a 20-year-old with dreadlocks that graze his shoulders, found himself getting nauseous in his apartment while his uncle and aunt cooked soul food for Thanksgiving.

Dennis walked outside to get some air, but ended up right in the grasp of the Metropolitan Police Department.

Stepping outside an apartment for fresh air doesn’t draw police attention in, say, Georgetown. But Dennis doesn’t live there. Instead, he lives on Buena Vista Terrace SE, a grim stretch of low-rise apartments pushed up against the Maryland border. And on Buena Vista Terrace, just standing outside can get you in trouble.

Dennis was standing on a ramp to his apartment building around 8:30 p.m., looking for relief from the chitlins’ aroma, when a police officer approached and told him and another man that they were blocking the ramp. The officer, according to a police report, told Dennis to move.

The request was an odd one for Dennis. In his telling, no one was trying to come up the ramp. If someone had come by, he says, he would have moved. The police report doesn’t mention anyone who couldn’t get past him.

“How can you tell me to move from the place where I live at?” Dennis says.

When Dennis refused to move, police arrested him and put him into a van. As the cop took him away, Dennis asked him why he was being arrested.

“Blocking a passage,” the officer said, in Dennis’ telling. “You’re going with me.”

Dennis had run afoul of a District law that forbids “incommoding,” which means blocking a sidewalk. The law is meant to fight disorderly conduct, but some lawyers and the people arrested for the “crime” say it’s routinely used to harass people seen as undesirable: protesters, the homeless, and black men.

While Dennis’ time in police custody lasted only a few hours, its effects lasted for months. Dennis, who works at a Dulles International Airport pizzeria, worried that his arrest could affect his security clearance at the airport, and thus, leave him without a job. Only when his case was dropped in April could he stop worrying about it.

Still, Dennis says the police officer who arrested him still comes by and tells him over the squad car loudspeaker to “get the fuck in the house.” …

It’s difficult to know how widespread abusive incommoding arrests are in the District. That’s in part because a vast majority of incommoding charges are resolved through the “post-and-forfeit” process. The accused party pays a fine and goes on his way, with no defense attorneys, prosecutors, or judges involved to determine whether the arrest was legitimate.

more (and this sad sentence has been said many times, about many things: “The reforms meant to curb police misuse of disorderly conduct laws had become just another vehicle for it.”)

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