Breaking News: obstructing official business requires obstruction of official business

One of the State’s favorite thrown-in charges is obstructing official business, codified under R.C. 2921.31(A).  By throw-in, I mean the State will often add this charge to the long list of more serious charges for a particular defendant, or that it is often a readily available charge for some other person for which the police weren’t able to arrest on more serious charges.  It’s often an easy offense to prove and one of the common scenarios goes like this: the police are called to a particular location and while attempting to get to the bottom of the situation (a domestic dispute, general fracas in the streets, etc.) some person at the scene makes it harder for the police to do their job.  This could be yelling at the officers, telling them misleading information, or any number of actions on the part of a defendant.  In short, the State does not take kindly to less-than-full cooperation by its citizens.  If the police want answers to their questions or submission to their authority, you had better adhere to their requests.  Anything less than full cooperation may result in a charge of OOB.  But is inconvenience or annoyance sufficient to sustain a conviction?  What must be proved to make out the crime of OOB?

In State v. Crawford, the Second District Court of Appeals says that not only must the defendant have engaged in an “overt act” with the intent to “hinder or impede” the officer in performing his official duties, but there must actually be some hindrance, i.e., some true obstruction.  If the defendant’s actions do not truly obstruct the officer’s ability to perform his job, then it is really, “no harm, no foul.”  Before getting more into the specifics of the Crawford case, let’s examine the statute at issue.

R.C. 2921.31(A) reads as follows:  “(A) No person, without privilege to do so and with purpose to prevent, obstruct, or delay the performance by a public official of any authorized act within the public official’s official capacity, shall do any act that hampers or impedes a public official in the performance of the public official’s lawful duties.”

Courts have stated that mere refusal to cooperate with law enforcement is not sufficient to sustain a conviction of OOB.  There must be some “overt act” on the part of the defendant.  Merely remaining silent and refusing to say something like, “he’s hiding over there in the bushes” is not enough to obstruct official business.  This interpretation of the statute is not new, and the Crawford decision did not alter or redefine the requirement of an overt act.  What the Crawford court was forced to really address was the element of “hinder” (or impede).

The relevant facts in Crawford are essentially this: Dayton police had obtained a search warrant for a residence which they believed to be a drug house.  Police got all dressed-up in their combat gear, grabbed a battering ram and headed to the home.  At the time they decided to perform the search, the defendant and at least two others were inside the “parlor area” on the first floor, with the front door open.  While they were initially approaching the front of the home, the Defendant spotted the officers and was accused of yelling “police” to others inside (like a modern-day Paul Revere).  Further, the Defendant slammed the front door closed before the officers could enter, forcing them to utilize the battering ram.  The State argued that these “overt acts” (yelling and slamming the front door closed) hindered and/or impeded the officers’ ability to execute the search warrant as it took away from the state’s tactical advantage of surprise, allowed others in the house to possibly hide evidence or arm themselves, and did not allow the officers to clear the front room as quickly as they could have if the door had remained open.

The Appellate Court disagreed.  While acknowledging that slamming the door was “arguably an affirmative act,” the Court noted that “there was no evidence offered to show that Crawford’s action of closing the front door had the effect of hampering or impeding the investigation of the officers, who had not yet reached the porch of the residence … the approaching officers were equipped with a battering ram which they used to breach the door to the residence.”  Further, the Court stated “any purported delay caused by Crawford’s actions was de minimus [very minimal] under the circumstances.”   In summation, because there was no evidence introduced that showed how the officers were actually impeded in executing the search warrant, there was insufficient evidence for a conviction and the trial court’s judgment of conviction was vacated.

The lesson here is that just because you do something the police do not like, or are not as cooperative as they desire, does not mean you have obstructed official business.  Your actions must actually obstruct their ability to perform their professional duties in some way.  Who knew?

Posted By Charles W. Morrison on October 31, 2013.