WHAT IS INTERFERENCE WITH PUBLIC DUTIES IN TEXAS?
It is the duty of law enforcement, emergency personnel, first responders, and other employees of the city, county, or state to protect its citizens’ health and safety. Texas law makes it a misdemeanor offense to interfere in any way with one’s lawful exercise of that duty through criminal negligence.
- What is criminal negligence? The culpable mental state required is criminal negligence, which means a person need not actually intend to interfere—one may be convicted if he should have been aware of the “substantial and unjustifiable risk” that his actions interrupted, disrupted, impeded, or otherwise interfered with one’s public duty, and the person’s failure to perceive the risk was “a gross deviation from the standard of ordinary care a person would exercise” under the circumstances.
- What is a public duty? Police officers and other government employees and officials are tasked with maintaining public health and safety. Any action taken to carry out those duties is considered a public duty. Police officers, for example, are responsible for investigating more than just crimes and Penal Code violations—they must also investigate emergency situations, including those in which a person with mental illness is threatening to harm themselves. The law enumerates the following public duties:
- Authority imposed or granted by law to peace officers
- Transportation of ill or injured persons
- Fighting a fire or investigating the cause of a fire
- Use of a law enforcement service animal for security or investigative purposes
- Radio communications to inquire or inform about an emergency
- Animal control services
- Investigating a particular site to assess, enact, or enforce public health, environmental, radiation, or safety measures for the state, county, or municipality
WHAT IS THE INTERFERENCE WITH PUBLIC DUTIES LAW IN TEXAS?
Tex. Penal Code § 38.15. INTERFERENCE WITH PUBLIC DUTIES.
(a) A person commits an offense if the person with criminal negligence interrupts, disrupts, impedes, or otherwise interferes with:
(1) a peace officer while the peace officer is performing a duty or exercising authority imposed or granted by law;
(2) a person who is employed to provide emergency medical services including the transportation of ill or injured persons while the person is performing that duty;
(3) a firefighter, while the fire fighter is fighting a fire or investigating the cause of a fire;
(4) an animal under the supervision of a peace officer, corrections officer, or jailer, if the person knows the animal is being used for law enforcement, corrections, prison or jail security, or investigative purposes;
(5) the transmission of a communication over a citizen’s band radio channel, the purpose of which communication is to inform or inquire about an emergency;
(6) an officer with responsibility for animal control in a county or municipality, while the officer is performing a duty or exercising authority imposed or granted under Chapter 821 or 822, Health and Safety Code; or
(7) a person who:
(A) has responsibility for assessing, enacting, or enforcing public health, environmental, radiation, or safety measures for the state or a county or municipality;
(B) is investigating a particular site as part of the person’s responsibilities under Paragraph (A);
(C) is acting in accordance with policies and procedures related to the safety and security of the site described by Paragraph (B); and
(D) is performing a duty or exercising authority imposed or granted under the Agriculture Code, Health and Safety Code, Occupations Code, or Water Code.
(b) An offense under this section is a Class B misdemeanor.
(c) It is a defense to prosecution under Subsection (a)(1) that the conduct engaged in by the defendant was intended to warn a person operating a motor vehicle of the presence of a peace officer who was enforcing Subtitle C, Title 7, Transportation Code.
(d) It is a defense to prosecution under this section that the interruption, disruption, impediment, or interference alleged consisted of speech only.
(d-1) Except as provided by Subsection (d-2), in a prosecution for an offense under Subsection (a)(1), there is a rebuttable presumption that the actor interferes with a peace officer if it is shown on the trial of the offense that the actor intentionally disseminated the home address, home telephone number, emergency contact information, or social security number of the officer or a family member of the officer or any other information that is specifically described by Section 552.117(a), Government Code.
(d-2) The presumption in Subsection (d-1) does not apply to information disseminated by:
(1) a radio or television station that holds a license issued by the Federal Communications Commission; or
(2) a newspaper that is:
(A) a free newspaper of general circulation or qualified to publish legal notices;
(B) published at least once a week; and
(C) available and of interest to the general public.
WHAT IS THE PENALTY CLASS FOR INTERFERENCE WITH PUBLIC DUTIES IN TEXAS?
Interference with public duties is a Class B misdemeanor, punishable by up to 180 days in county jail.
WHAT IS THE PUNISHMENT RANGE FOR INTERFERENCE WITH PUBLIC DUTIES IN TEXAS?
The punishment range for interference with public duties, a Class B misdemeanor, is a maximum jail sentence of 180 days, and up to a $2,000 fine.
WHAT ARE THE PENALTIES FOR INTERFERENCE WITH PUBLIC DUTIES IN TEXAS?
As an alternative to jail time, a person charged with interference with public duties may be placed on either probation after a conviction, or deferred adjudication without a conviction, for up to two years.
WHAT ARE THE DEFENSES TO INTERFERENCE WITH PUBLIC DUTIES IN TEXAS?
A person can be charged with interference with public duties by impeding a police officer from conducting a traffic stop on another motorist. The statute creates a defense if a person was merely alerting a driver that an officer was attempting to pull over that driver or another. However, the required culpable mental state for interference is only criminal negligence, so a person intending to help may nevertheless be convicted if he should have understood the risks posed by his conduct.
- What if the alleged interference was verbal, protected speech? The statute reiterates the First Amendment protection of freedom of speech, but the speech-only provision is a defense, not an exception. While a significant amount of verbal criticism and challenge directed at peace officers is permitted, threatening a public servant is a crime.Courts also often find affirmative acts beyond speech to support an interference conviction. In Barnes v. State, an officer attempted to pull over the defendant, but after the initial stop, she rolled forward slowly about 70 feet. She then refused to roll down her window and sat in her truck ignoring officer commands for around 40 minutes. Officers broke her window, and she told her child to run.The Court of Criminal Appeals held her conduct was beyond speech, and interfered with the officer’s lawful duty of issuing a speeding ticket.
- Can a police officer stop a person from doing something that is otherwise legal activity? Yes, depending on the circumstances. For example, citizens have a right to film police, and a right to carry firearms. But no right is unlimited, and must often yield to safety concerns.In Lovett v. State, groups of citizens would appear at traffic stops to film police, and often brought weapons. At one stop, additional officers arrived for security. Officers told the armed citizens to put their guns away, and everyone except for the defendant complied. After telling him three times to put his weapon in his car, he was arrested for interfering with public duties, but was otherwise cooperative.The court of appeals upheld his conviction. Police are legally authorized to disarm a license holder when necessary for anyone’s protection. See Tex. Gov’t Code § 411.207(a).
WHAT IS THE STATUTE OF LIMITATIONS FOR INTERFERENCE WITH PUBLIC DUTIES IN TEXAS?
The limitation period for interference with public duties, a Class B misdemeanor, is two years.
INTERFERENCE WITH PUBLIC DUTIES IN TEXAS
Police officers, firefighters, medical personnel, service animals, and other government employees have the lawful authority to maintain public safety, and the law prohibits interference with their exercise of public duties.
TEXAS INTERFERENCE WITH PUBLIC DUTIES COURT CASES
The case law regarding interference with public duties in Texas shows the minimal conduct required to sustain a conviction.
- In Mathis v. State, officers went to the defendant’s home to conduct a welfare check on a child, which is a lawful exercise of a public duty. They told the defendant, who was in the front yard, why they were there. She said neither the child nor the mother were home. The mother and child came outside, but the defendant pushed them back in, and yelled, “get the F inside.” She was convicted of interfering with public duties, and the appellate court affirmed. By physically pushing the mother and child inside, she impeded the officers’ ability to interview them.
- In Faust v. State, the defendant was protesting a gay pride parade. Police set up skirmish lines so the protestors could demonstrate without becoming violent. They were free to walk anywhere except into the street where the parade proceeded. After the defendant yelled discriminatory remarks at officers and parade participants, he crossed two feet past the skirmish line into the street.The defendant was ultimately convicted of interfering with public duties, and the Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed. The defendant’s speech was not restricted because he was free to protest in a public place, and was only prohibited from going to a specific area for a short time for the lawful purpose of preserving the peace.