Salem, OR – The Oregon Senate has passed legislation that would pave the way for people to sue citizens who call police on people it is determined they haven’t broken any laws.
“When someone gets the police called on them for just existing in public, it sends a message that you don’t belong here,” Representative Janelle Bynum, the bill’s sponsor, told the Associated Press.
Although HB-3216 does not make it a crime to call police, it does create a means by which those who feel they have been wronged can file a lawsuit against callers.
Such lawsuits would be filed in small claims courts, and plaintiffs would be permitted to claim damages of up to $250, plus punitive damages and attorney fees.
“This creates a legal pathway to justice for those of us who have to worry about getting the cops called on us for existing in public,” Bynum said. “There’s a certain amount of your dignity that is stripped when you are stopped by the police for doing nothing but existing.”
While the law was promoted as an anti-racism law to prevent the public from calling police on black people going about their everyday lives, the wording on the law is much more lenient.
The law allows people to sue if anybody calls the police on them to expel them from a place where they are lawfully located.
For example, if a homeless person is sleeping in a public library, and a citizen calls the police to investigate, the caller could be liable.
“I wanted to spark a community conversation about how we make people feel welcome in our community and the danger that malicious 911 calls place on the lives of minorities,” Bynum told the Los Angeles Times. “I believe that this bill is an important part of that conversation, and will hopefully lead people to think carefully before calling the police.”
The senate passed the legislation in a landslide 27-1 vote on Monday, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported.
“I don’t think some of my colleagues understand how fearful it can be,” said Senator Lew Frederick, who is black. “I’ve said very simply when a police officer stops me, I wonder if I’m going to live the rest of the day. It’s a very direct, clear fear. Hard to get that across to my colleagues who don’t have that kind of fear.”
Senator Alan Olsen – the only Oregon senator who voted against the measure – said he is afraid the legislation will negatively affect Neighborhood Watch programs.
“It concerns me when we pass legislation that would stifle this group of folks protecting their neighborhood,” Olsen explained.
City leaders in Grand Rapids, Michigan are considering a similar city ordinance, which would make it a criminal offense for citizens to call police on black people if it is ultimately determined they haven’t committed any crimes.
Anyone determined to have violated the ordinance would face a potential $500 fine, according to WOOD.
Critics noted that the proposed Grand Rapids ordinance would be difficult to enforce because the intent of the person calling police is not always known.
“How will investigators of the alleged bias determine what is truly a sinister and criminal motive from a simple misunderstanding?” one citizen asked the city commission, according to The Washington Post.
Others expressed concerns that people would likely hesitate to report crimes to police out of fear of making a mistake and being criminally charged.
Law enforcement agencies generally encourage people to report suspicious behavior, even if they don't know a crime is being committed.
Citizens also noted that filing a false police report is already an illegal act, and argued that the new ordinance is redundant.
State legislators in Michigan and New York attempted to pass similar measures in 2018, but those efforts failed, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The Oregon legislation will now go back to the House for signoff on a slight alteration before it is passed on to the governor, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported.