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Fed. judge: Columbia ordinance on police interference unconstitutional

A federal judge ruled Monday that a city of Columbia ordinance that makes it illegal to interfere with an officer carrying out an arrest is unconstitutionally vague.

Judge Joe Anderson made the ruling in a 42-page pretrial order that essentially sets legal ground rules for opposing parties in an upcoming trial that will scrutinize the actions of Columbia police officers as they made an arrest in 2009 outside the Red Hot Tomatoes bar in Five Points.

Enough issues remain in the case to hold a jury trial, Anderson ruled. That trial is scheduled to begin March 18 at the Matthew Perry federal courthouse in Columbia.

The case involves the arrest of a lawyer, Jonathan McCoy, who in the early morning hours of Oct. 17, 2009, tried to ask several city police officers why they were arresting one of his friends. McCoy, too, ended up in handcuffs.

In his federal lawsuit, McCoy accuses the officers of interfering with his free speech rights and filing an inaccurate police report about his arrest.

In his ruling, Anderson said the Columbia ordinance, enacted in 1979, is overbroad because it doesn’t have any qualifying language that describes what is meant by “interfere with.”

The exact wording of the ordinance is, “It shall be unlawful for any person to interfere with or molest a police officer in the lawful discharge of his duties.”

That wording allows police to interpret any questions from a bystander during an arrest as actions that “interfere with” the arrest, Anderson wrote in his order.

“The First Amendment protects a significant amount of speech directed at police officers,” Anderson wrote in his order.

Anderson’s order also contained victories for three police officers named in McCoy’s lawsuit, finding them immune from any sort of punitive damages and that they can’t be held liable for malicious prosecution against McCoy.

A major issue for the jury, Anderson wrote, is whether McCoy was arrested in retaliation for his statements to officers during the arrest of his friend.

Key evidence at the trial, which is expected to last several days, will be the introduction of various surveillance tapes taken of the incident.

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin was traveling and could not be reached for comment.

City police Chief Randy Scott said he had not seen the ruling and declined comment.