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Friday, July 12, 2024 | Back issues
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Nothing Wrong in Ignoring Cops for Jell-O

(CN) - You don't have to talk to cops if you don't want to, the Second Circuit confirmed Thursday, ordering a new trial for a man who was arrested while eating Jell-O in a public park.

Afram Uzoukwu was arrested in May 2008 while eating Jell-O in a public park that has a playground where adults are barred unless they are accompanying children.

Though Uzoukwu now claims that his 3-year-old and his 5-year-old were at the park with him, police say they did not see a stroller and asked to see his identification.

When Uzoukwu refused to answer their questions, focused on finishing his snack, one of the officers admitted that he grabbed the Jell-O out of Uzoukwu's hands and threw it out.

With the officers calling him a pedophile, Uzoukwu says he began yelling after officers started hitting him.

Uzoukwu was arrested, and it took over a year to get the disorderly conduct and obstruction charges against him dismissed.

A federal jury in Manhattan eventually heard the man's constitutional claims against the city after hitting a snag in deliberations on whether ignoring a police officer's questions amounts to obstruction of governmental administration.

With Uzouwu appealing pro se, the Second Circuit vacated the verdict Thursday and remanded for a new trial.

"Under New York law, it is clearly established that Uzoukwu's constitutionally protected silence could not constitute any element of the crime of obstructing governmental administration, even if such silence interfered with the officers' attempt to investigate whether Uzoukwu was violating park rules," Judge Rosemary Pooler wrote for the three-person panel.

The circuit leaned on precedent from the 1980 case People v. Howard, which says a person "may remain silent or walk or run away. His refusal to answer is not a crime."

"For substantially the same reasons, under New York law obstruction of governmental administration cannot rest upon refusal to provide identification," Pooler wrote.

And anyway, Uzoukwu's refusal to answer any of the officers' questions was not disobedience, but an exercise of his Fifth Amendment constitutional right.

The circuit also said the trial judge failed to offer guidance on how the jurors should cast their thinking.

"There is no basis here to conclude that the erroneous instruction did not influence the jury's verdict," Pooler wrote. "To the contrary, the instructions invited the jury to find for the defendants on the false arrest claim by inaccurately suggesting that they could find probable cause existed to arrest Uzoukwu for obstruction of governmental administration solely because he refused to answer the questions of officers who were attempting to enforce park rule."

Further diminishing probable cause is the Uzoukwu's testimony that undercuts statements by the cops that he caused a scene and began screaming when approached. Uzoukwu says he had just had neck surgery and couldn't scream.

"This is sufficient to raise a question of material fact as to whether Uzoukwuu's behavior provided probable cause to arrest him for disorderly conduct," the 25-page decision states.

"Accordingly, we are compelled to vacate the verdict and remand this matter for a new trial on the false arrest claim," Pooler wrote.

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