Should You Be Required to Help Law Enforcement?

Christopher Hallen Comments

What if a law enforcement officer demands you assist him and you refuse?  In California, you could be convicted of a misdemeanor and fined up to $1,000. A new bill could change that.

Ted Bundy was a notorious rapist and serial killer in the mid and late 1970s who served time in the Pitkin County jail in Aspen, Colorado. In 1977, Bundy escaped from jail. The sheriff there called a posse – a group of able-bodied, armed men summoned by a sheriff to enforce the law – to apprehend him. Bundy was later apprehended and sentenced to death.

It’s laudable that members of the Pitkin County community worked to apprehend a wanted rapist and serial killer. But what if the situation was different?

What if a sheriff commanded you to help him apprehend a non-violent drug user and you refused?

What if a police officer demanded you assist her apprehending a sex worker?

In California, under the California Posse Comitatus Act of 1872, if “an able-bodied person 18 years of age or older”… refuse[s] to comply with a cop’s call for assistance in making an arrest, recapturing a suspect fleeing custody “or preventing a breach of the peace or the commission of any criminal offense” that person could be convicted of a misdemeanor and fined up to $1,000.  

But even without posse comitatus, citizens can volunteer to help apprehend the Ted Bundys of the world without the threat of a misdemeanor and a hefty fine hanging over them if they refuse.

Let’s dig a little deeper for a moment. What does posse comitatus mean and why do we have it?

According to Black’s Law Dictionary “posse comitatus” means “…the power or force of the county. The entire population of a county above the age of fifteen, which a sheriff may summon to his assistance in certain cases as to aid him in keeping the peace, in pursuing and arresting felons …” can be traced back to the reign of Alfred the Great in ninth-century England.

Alexander Hamilton argued in Federalist 29 that the Necessary and Proper Clause in the U.S. Constitution granted the federal government the power of posse comitatus.

Prior to the American Civil War, the Fugitive Slave Act was passed by Congress which required citizens to hunt fugitive slaves if they were called upon.

To many Americans living in the north, being forced by federal marshals to recapture slaves felt eerily close to practicing slavery. And even after the Civil War, posse comitatus continues. And, as mentioned prior, California in 1872 passed the California Posse Comitatus Act. Recently California State Senate Majority Leader Bob Hertzberg, D-Los Angeles, introduced a bill to repeal the California Posse Comitatus Act.

Sen. Hertzberg thinks the law is “…antiquated and no longer needed…” Meanwhile, law enforcement lobbying groups are still formulating a response.

The United States and California, in particular, needs less government coercion and more freedom. When criminals in our communities engage in rape, robbery, and murder, community members have and will volunteer to assist law enforcement.

But law enforcement should not have the power to order citizens to assist them in capturing non-violent citizens engaging in victimless crimes or crimes that violate their consciences. Therefore, the California Posse Comitatus Act of 1872 should be repealed.

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