The Branson Board of Aldermen has approved a change to city code requiring anyone stopped by Branson police to provide their identifying information before being arrested.
The previous city code had made it a crime to provide false information, or to refuse to give information, to a police officer after they had been legally arrested. Now, if an officer stops someone under the legal term “reasonable suspicion,” anyone stopped must provide the officer with their information or they can be given a ticket by officers.
Branson City Attorney Chris Lebeck previously told Branson Tri-Lakes News the U.S. Supreme Court defined “reasonable suspicion” generally as a trained police officer believing “there exists a substantial possibility looking at the ‘totality of the circumstances’ criminal conduct has occurred, is occurring or is about to occur.” Lebeck said the standard comes from the 2002 U.S. Supreme Court case United States v. Arvizu, 534 U.S. 266.
State Representative Brian Seitz spoke to the board against the measure, and called for the board to vote down the change because he was concerned about civil liberties.
“The new ordinance would allow for a citizen to be charged with a misdemeanor before being lawfully arrested if he refused to self-identify,” Seitz said. “It’s my contention that the Fourth and Fifth Constitutional Amendments come into play, and a person should be secure in his person. Yes, I’ve read the Supreme Court 5-4 decision authored by Justice (Anthony) Kennedy, and I disagree with the ruling.”
Seitz said while Branson currently has an “excellent police force” and he supports law enforcement, he wanted to look to the future regarding the proposed change.
“If this ordinance is put in place, it could affect our neighbors, friends, and children negatively years down the road,” Seitz said. “Current law allows for reasonable suspicion, but also protects individual citizen’s rights. I think this ordinance removes those rights.”
He also mentioned a statement made at the last board meeting regarding people who may be cited under the ordinance.
“Two weeks ago it was said, and I may be paraphrasing, if you haven’t done anything wrong and you’re involved if this ordinance passes, you can still go to court and prove your innocence,” Seitz said. “That’s a horrid policy because you haven’t done anything wrong! So why do you have to go to court to prove your innocence? We don’t need to jam up our court systems with people who haven’t done anything wrong. We’ve seen too much of this lately and it needs to stop.”
Lebeck noted the state of Missouri has passed a similar law for the city of Kansas City. He said the setup for the city’s police force is unique and required the state legislature to approve the measure.
“Our federal courts, specifically the United States Supreme Court, said this is permissible,” Lebeck said. “About 25 states have a similar law on the books, and I’m including Missouri because we have it as to Kansas City.
“I’m looking at this through the lens of a prosecutor, and Chief Matthews can look at this through the eyes of a police officer, this is simply a tool to allow our officers to investigate potential criminal activity.”
Lebeck noted the impressions of some in the community police are looking to make extra stops to help fund the city are incorrect.
“Our municipal court loses a significant amount of money each year,” Lebeck said. “It is a public safety cost. There’s no revenue there. So to make the point, I think, is misguided a bit. The bottom line is this is a tool for law enforcement to do their job better when they see criminal activity is afoot.”
Lebeck also told the board this issue goes to the fundamental ability of officers to be “efficient and effective in their work.”
“How is a law enforcement officer able to do his job if he can’t effectively identify the person where criminal activity is afoot?” Lebeck said. “That’s the fundamental problem here, and what we’re trying to solve at the city level.”
“I don’t know nothin’ about coppin’,” Alderman Clay Cooper said as he asked Police Chief Jeff Matthews to explain the issue with the stops, “When I was growing up, if a cop asks you a question, it’s ‘yes sir,’ and ‘no, sir.’ Never in a million years if a cop asked ‘what’s your name boy’ would I say ‘I don’t have to tell you.’ If I did, I would feel like I must be hiding something.”
Cooper added that while he supports Seitz when it comes to individual liberty, he also supports law enforcement, and gave an example from his theatre where this law could have a positive impact.
He said there have been a few break-ins at his theatre during the show, such as a woman who had her van broken into and had $800 stolen from her purse while they watched the show.
“If my parking lot guy says ‘hey, there’s a guy walking around back here with a crowbar, with a hoodie on, who’s zipping between cars,’” Cooper said. “If I called the cops and you showed up and you say ‘what’s your name, what are you doing here’ and the guy says ‘I don’t have to tell you nothin,’ and then walked off, I’d be ticked! 99.9% of the time it’s the guy! He’s got the tool, he’s zippin’ around in the dark. I’m just trying to think common sense here.”
Cooper stated the Branson Police Department has good cops, and they hire the best people who make “the best decisions to enforce the law” and asked if the change will help expedite investigations for the department.
Matthews thanked Cooper for his comments on the character of the department’s police officers, and then explained courts look at any situation based on professional law enforcement.
“The courts hold [reasonable suspicion] to an objective, reasonable standard through the eyes of a trained, educated, professional police officer,” Matthews said. “[It’s] the standard the courts hold us to.”
Matthews said to answer Cooper’s question, if they can ask someone for their name and the person leaves because the department doesn’t find evidence of a crime, but then finds it ten minutes later, they now have a starting point for their investigation.
Cooper then referenced concerns from a citizen regarding a jogger being stopped just because someone called the police, or someone is just walking down the street and stopped.
“In my almost 37 years of wearing a uniform, have I seen cops who have made decisions like you’re talking about? Yes, but I’ve seen far more on the other side because of the standards not only you hold us to, but the courts hold us to,” Matthews said. “Can I talk to anybody I want? Yes. But they don’t have to talk to me. But when I meet the reasonable suspicion standard, now I can legally detain them to investigate past, present, and future criminal offenses.
“It’s another tool in the toolbox to make Branson a safer place.”
Matthews noted police already have the authority to make those stops, but this ordinance just makes the identification process a requirement.
“If the fire department needed an axe, we’d buy them the best ones we could,” Alderman Jeff Seay said to Chief Matthews. “Like you said, this is a tool in your tool box to get to an end result. If it’s nothing, you move on, but you can open a lot of doors from a particular stop.”
Alderman Ruth Denham said she agreed with those who were concerned about the measure, noting officers can already arrest someone. She said she contacted a legal authority who said this ordinance could open the city to a lawsuit, and moved to table the measure. The move to table died because of a lack of a second.
The ordinance passed 4-1, with Denham voting against passage.