Florida prosecutor’s office stops pursuing most resisting arrest cases, causing concerns for local police
Police have used resisting arrest charges to stifle protests and free speech, said State Attorney Aramis Ayala, whose jurisdiction covers almost 1.8 million people in Orange and Osceola counties.
She’s tangled with DeSantis and his predecessor before over her refusal to seek the death penalty. The state Supreme Court backed former Gov. Rick Scott’s decision to re-assign such trials. DeSantis may challenge her again, she suspects.
“I would not be surprised if there was an attempt for some type of political gratification, but I’m just defining alternative methods of prosecution,” she told CNN.
Officers undermine public safety when they bring “the force of our criminal justice system to bear against nonviolent citizens who are simply promoting the change our society so desperately needs,” her policy, announced Tuesday, says.
Abuse of power is another factor, she said. Especially when dealing with African Americans, police too often charge people with resisting arrest as a retaliatory measure or to cover up their own misdeeds, she said.
Under the policy, most people charged with nonviolently resisting will be ordered to watch a 30-minute video on the importance of obeying police. Offenders who have been arrested in the previous six months for resisting arrest will be prosecuted normally, the policy says.
Data shows that between September 2019 and September 2020 police charged Black residents with resisting arrest almost twice as often as other demographics combined, despite African Americans making up less than 21% of the counties’ populations. The contrast could be starker for people of color in general, Ayala said, but her arrest data doesn’t differentiate between White and Hispanic.
Prosecuting the cases encourages disproportionate policing, saps needed resources, creates trauma and long-term economic hardships and fosters distrust in the legal system, the policy says.
While research shows correlations between public trust and public safety, Ayala said, there’s nothing that indicates prosecuting nonviolent resisting arrest charges leads to less crime.
“There is absolutely no research that supports the nexus,” she said, “between a person who is arrested for resisting an officer without violence and future criminality.”
Other cities, including Chicago, New York and San Diego, reportedly have had similar racial disparities in resisting arrest charges, and some prosecutors have taken steps similar to Ayala’s. But Ayala believes hers is the nation’s most sweeping, she said.
‘It’s a bad decision’
Ayala’s team will still pursue cases involving violence or other aggravating factors, but the resisting arrest announcement isn’t sitting well with some of the 21 police agencies in her sprawling Ninth Circuit.
Heads of her circuit’s two largest police agencies say they worry Ayala’s policy was hastily conceived and will create problems if people are emboldened to defy lawful orders, they told CNN.
“That could start the chain of events that leads to us using more force, where we were just detaining you and had reasons to stop you and just wanted you to get out of the car or come and sit down,” Orange County Sheriff John Mina said. “We just think this is going to confuse our residents.”
It will also encourage drug dealers carrying narcotics to flee, the sheriff said.
“We already have an issue with people, when being stopped by law enforcement, pulling out their phone and refusing to get out of the car,” Mina said. “Police give a lawful command, you need to follow instructions.”
He and Orlando Police Chief Orlando Rolón were not consulted before Ayala’s Tuesday announcement. Rolón and Ayala briefly discussed the matter at an event this month, he said.
Ayala provided CNN a letter she sent to police chiefs and sheriffs the day before the announcement, but Mina didn’t receive it, he said. Only Windermere Police Chief David Ogden responded, Ayala said, asking to see the video.
“It caught many people off guard … In the end, it’s about communication,” Rolón said. “We all want a nation where people feel that they are being policed (justly), and everyone is treated the same with dignity and respect and there is no question about the way law enforcement is performing their duties.”
Without singling out Rolón or Mina, Ayala said some police leaders have declined to support her reforms or issued statements contradicting her vision, she said.
“Seeking the counsel of people who don’t have same vision as me is counterproductive,” she said.
Rolón believes Ayala has good intentions, but he would have liked to share his insights. Ayala previously sought police guidance on her plan to publicly list officers who committed ethical or criminal violations, Rolón said, and he felt police input made officers more amenable to her policy.
He worries Ayala’s office is sending a message that protesters can take over an interstate or block an intersection, and it’s no big deal if they disobey police because they’ll just watch a video and do it again in six months, he said.
“It’s a bad decision,” he said. “When the only consequence of their actions is going to be a 30-minute video, then that is concerning.”
Mina was dismayed he could fast forward through the video, provide a fake name and receive a certificate of completion, he said. CNN was able to do the same.
Weeks after Gov. Ron DeSantis proposed a crackdown on civil disobedience and protesters who target police, a Florida prosecutor has instructed her staff to stop pursuing resisting arrest charges in many cases.
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