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Legislature should reconsider 'interfering' law

If a police officer orders you to take five steps back and you take four, you in theory committed a misdemeanor in Oregon — interfering with a police officer.

State Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, introduced the law in 1997. He now is considering if the Legislature should remove or change the law, according to a recent feature in the The Oregonian. He’s worried parts of the criminal justice system are misusing or misapplying it.

He’s right. Lawmakers need to reexamine this law.

The idea of interfering with a police officer is to give additional authority to an officer’s instructions. Disobey them and you could face punishment. The law can be helpful to officers when dealing with an individual and a crowd forms, making it difficult for police to find room to maneuver. This law gives police the authority to order the crowd back and the ability to charge people who do not follow those instructions. Resisting arrest and keeping police from arresting someone else are separate crimes.

But arrests statewide for interfering have increased significantly in the last 10 years, up 2-1/2 times. There also is concern there may be a racial bias in its use. Black people are only about 3% of Oregon’s population but 10% of the people charged under this law.

Police use of the law to arrest homeless people also has increased since 1997, with numbers peaking in 2014. Since then, The Oregonian reported, “arrests of homeless people for interfering with an officer have stayed nearly as high as drug charges.”

Interfering is a Class A misdemeanor. Usually the penalty is community service or a small fine, according to The Oregonian. The penalty can be up to one year in jail and a fine of $6,250.

That may not seem like much, but this is the kind of law that is easy to abuse. When taking one step too many back can land someone in jail, then it’s time for Prozanski and other legislators to take another look at the law.