Police in Pennsylvania Are Abusing the State's Hate Crime Law to Punish Speech

When reporter Joshua Vaughn of The Appeal told me that some Pennsylvania police have charged people with “ethnic intimidation” — the state’s version of a hate crime — for saying offensive things to the officers who arrest them, I thought, “Not again!”

No, really. This is another version of “contempt of cop,” the police practice of punishing people who defy them with criminal charges. So now, amidst a rising tide of actual hate crimes, we have police officers using hate crime laws to punish people who get angry when they are being arrested.

In June, I reviewed the affidavits of probable cause that four officers used to justify hate crimes charges against four suspects in 2016. Two people were being arrested for minor crimes. The third was arrested for getting upset when the police would not take her complaint, and the fourth was being picked up for a psychiatric check.

Yet, all of them ended up charged with hate crimes.

Sannetta Amoroso went to her local police station in January 2016 to report a stolen TV but became agitated when the police asked her to write it down, so the officers decided to arrest her for disorderly conduct. She resisted and was knocked to the ground and overpowered. While handcuffed in her cell, she yelled, “Death to all you white bitches. I’m going to kill all you white bitches. I hope ISIS kills all you white bitches.” She received six charges, including a felony assault charge for hitting an officer in the arm and felony ethnic intimidation.

In June 2016, State Trooper Robert Wareham came upon Steven Oller’s car parked on the side of the road, with Oller outside. Wareham described Oller as shaking, with dilated pupils and bloodshot eyes. Oller was forcibly subdued, cuffed, placed in a patrol car, and driven to a hospital for blood testing.

During the incident, Oller called a trooper with a Latino last name a “wetback,” stated that he did not “speak kielbasa,” and spoke of another trooper having anal and oral sex with men. Oller was charged with a slew of offenses, including harassment and ethnic intimidation. 

In August 2016, the police handcuffed Seneca Payne at home and drove him to a hospital for a “welfare check” when a neighbor reported that Payne had been drunk and talked of hurting himself. On the way, Payne said to one trooper, “Are you a citizen?”, “nigger,” “Go back to your country Ghandi motherfucker,” and “gook mother fucker.” Payne was charged with misdemeanor resisting arrest, fighting, and ethnic intimidation.  

In September 2016, Robbie Sanderson was arrested when employees at a CVS claimed he was shoplifting. After he had been cuffed and placed in a police car, he called the arresting officer a “mother fucker,” a “fucking militant,” a “fucking skinhead,” and “Gestapo.” At the station, Sanderson called the chief of police a “fat motherfucker” and made violent threats while in his cell. The arresting officer charged Sanderson with terroristic threats and ethnic intimidation — but never said why he thought the “threats” were motivated by bias.

These people said awful things to the police, but they all were handcuffed and far from threatening. We expect our police to be thick-skinned because their job is, by definition, dealing with people at their worst. That’s not an original thought — the courts have said so for years.

In 1974, in Lewis v. New Orleans, the Supreme Court struck down a city ordinance that made it a crime “for any person wantonly to curse or revile or to use obscene or opprobrious language toward or with reference to” a city officer. The court said, “A properly trained police officer may reasonably be expected to exercise a higher degree of restraint” than the average citizen when insulted. Thirteen years later, the court, citing Lewis, struck down a Houston ordinance that made it a crime to “oppose . . . or interrupt any policeman” in the performance of his duties.

In Pennsylvania, as in many other states, an ethnic intimidation charge is an “up charge,” meaning the suspect faces harsher discipline under the law. Robbie Sanderson, for example, was charged with “terroristic threats,” a first-degree misdemeanor. The additional ethnic intimidation charge, however, is a third-degree felony that carries a maximum of sentence of seven years’ incarceration. That was Sanderson’s only felony that day.

Oller’s and Payne’s misdemeanor ethnic intimidation charges could get them each a year in jail. Amoroso was given a second-degree felony for hitting one of the officers who tackled her. But the charge for what she said is a first-degree felony, with a potential sentence of 20 years’ incarceration. 

Hate crime laws are supposed to deter and punish crimes that target people for who they are and make the world safer for communities that suffer from discrimination.

Sanderson, Oller, Amoroso, and Payne resisted arrest, both physically and verbally, because they didn’t want to be arrested — not because of the color of the officers’ skin. Charging them with ethnic intimidation and threatening them with years of prison for their words does not make the world safer for anyone.

Hate crime charges should be reserved for the serious crimes they were intended to address, not used by police seeking to punish people for disrespect. As Supreme Court Justice William Brennan said: “The freedom of individuals verbally to oppose or challenge police action without thereby risking arrest is one of the principal characteristics by which we distinguish a free nation from a police state.”

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Anonymous

this does not surprise me, as cops have been using charges as leverage for years.....ffs, to plea out only means you dont want to do the max if you lose at trial....they play your fear of that to plea, regardless of whether you are innocent, since most of us, have no faith in the judicial system....and they know that.

Dr. Timothy Leary

What To Say When You Encounter The Police:
"Good afternoon officer. I am happy to see to that you are so diligently protecting not only the public's life and property, but our civil rights as well. I am proud to see that my tax dollars are being well spent. Now, what can I do for you today?"

What Not To Say When You Encounter The Police:
"Buzz off, you {censored repeatedly by the A.C.L.U.}.

Anonymous

The only proper thing to say to a cop without a lawyer present is nothing.

Lois

Many cops today do not respect ordinary people. They have no desire to give any respect. You must get respect to give it.

Also by saying that essay that you wrote, many cops don't want to wait the time it takes to say all of that.
I just say hi, and what is the problem?
When it all wraps up, I tell them to have a good day.
All you should do is be polite and let them do their job.

Kevin Schmidt

Stop talking about it and start filing lawsuits. Do your job, ACLU!

Anonymous

I’m pretty sure they are but at the same time also employ writers to tell us about what’s going on. Organizations can multitask you know.

Anonymous

These bad and LYING COWARD AS POLICE are are truly a bunch of RACIST HYPOCRITES that should NEVER EVER QUALIFY to be public servants, ESPECIALLY the tired white bigots that have NEVER cared about justice for all. There should be better psychological outside evaluations of the POS bad police that are out to hurt, kill, and ruin black peoples lives...

Kmac

Even on youtube there are many examples of both white and non-white cops hurting and killing all races. It seems by narrowing your complaint to one race you exclude other people that would take your position that police have crossed a line.

RobertC

This is the problem with hate crimes laws and why they should be abolished: they punish thought and stifle freedom of expression. If the complainant says he or she "feels" they were victims of hate speech, who can gainsay them? If two individuals get into a fight and exchange blows, if one of them, in heat of anger, utters a racial or other kind of personal pejorative, he can be charged with a "hate crime" on top of whatever the charge is for fighting, and be given an "enhanced" sentence. (Funny how "enhanced" conceals cruelty, here, just as it does with the term "enhanced interrogation," which sounds like someone saying, "I'm going to question really really INTENTLY!", when, in fact, as we all know, it's just plain old torture. And hate crimes laws are plain old though crimes. Get rid of them.

Anonymous

These people should have read the ACLU guides on what to do when stopped by police.

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