'You Can't Do This to People': Robin McDermott's Resistance

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It is incredible how soon as a people becomes subject, it promptly falls into such complete forgetfulness of its freedom that it can hardly be roused to the point of regaining it, obeying so easily and so willingly that one is led to say … that this people has not so much lost its liberty as won its enslavement.

~ tienne de La Botie, The Politics of Obedience: The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude

As a 45-year-old single mother of two caring for a crippled brother, Robin McDermott was well-acquainted with adversity. When Robin’s brother woke her up early in the morning on January 23, 1998 with the news that her older son, Morgan Smith, was being arrested on a DUI charge, she knew things were about to get just a touch worse.

The resident of Springfield, Missouri most likely did not anticipate being needlessly attacked by a police dog, hauled off to jail, and spending the next decade in a lengthy legal struggle with a corrupt and abusive municipal government — simply because she failed to demonstrate the cringing, reflexive submission expected from those of us who don’t wear government-issued costumes.

Bleary-eyed from lack of rest, clad in slippers and a nightshirt, Robin turned on the porch light and stepped outside to learn what was going on. She asked the officer who had conducted a field sobriety test if Morgan could briefly speak with her inside the house; she wanted to satisfy herself that her son had indeed been driving while intoxicated.

“He said, ‘Well, it’s a little late for that. He’s going to jail,’” Robin recalled in an interview with the Springfield News-Leader, mimicking Officer Tom Royal’s smug, officious tone.

Understandably offended by the dismissive tax-feeder (or, to use her preferred description, “donut-burner”) in her driveway, Robin found her mood worsening as the police deployed a drug-sniffing dog named Caesar to search Morgan’s vehicle. She went into her house, put on some jeans, made a 911 call to protest the officers’ behavior, and then went back out to her porch to confront them again.

As a student of constitutional law who was familiar with police tactics, Robin was justifiably suspicious that the officers — five in all — were looking for a pretext to forfeit (that is, steal under the color of "law") the pickup truck and anything else on which they could put their hands. Her suspicion was sharpened when the police allowed the dog off its leash to roam freely around the property — a violation of the city’s “dog at large” ordinance.

Knowing that it was possible to tow the pickup truck to another location to continue the search, Robin ordered the police off her property. The officers refused, despite the fact — confirmed in subsequent legal proceedings — that they had already summoned a tow truck and had thus had no reason at all to conduct the search in the driveway.

By this time, Robin’s fuses were thoroughly blown, a fact reflected in the increasingly salty language she used to demand explanations from the police — particularly regarding the large, potentially violent dog that they were permitting to run loose in her front yard.

Robin never budged from her front porch — meaning that she was more than thirty feet away from the scene of the search. As a federal court would later observe: “At no point did she offer any force or violence, or threat thereof, nor did she seek to close the distance between herself and police.”

Nonetheless, Robin was thrown face-down on the ground by Officer Royal, handcuffed, and arrested under a city ordinance forbidding citizens to “resist or obstruct a city officer making an arrest or serving any legal writ, warrant or process or attempting to execute any other duty imposed on him by law.”

Robin’s “resistance” or “obstruction” consisted of heckling a knot of self-important armed bureaucrats who were acting as petty tyrants by seeking a pretext to expand their DUI-related search.

Her “crime” was to display insufficient docility in the face of armed aggression by agents of the state. As she commented in a telephone interview with Pro Libertate, “I wasn’t cordial enough for their tastes when they invaded my property.”

“You would beat up an old grandma?” Robin protested as Royal rudely cuffed her wrists.

“If you’re a grandma, why don’t you act like one?” Royal reportedly replied.

While Royal assaulted and taunted her, Robin endured an even greater violation of her person: Caesar, who had been permitted to run free, vaulted onto the porch and bit Robin several times in the thigh and buttocks, leaving her with severe puncture wounds. She was shuttled to a local hospital and then to jail in a police wagon, the interior of which was drenched in urine; this helps explain why the wounds inflicted by Caesar (and, indirectly, by his criminally negligent handler) would become infected and fester for weeks.

Released from jail the following morning, Robin’s inchoate anger had been catalyzed into resolve.

“I went to bed that night thinking I was at least secure in my own bedroom, my own property,” she recalled to Pro Libertate. “The next thing I know there are police — armed men — strutting across my property and arrogantly dismissing my rights. They just can’t treat people that way.”

As is the case with all ordinances of its kind, Springfield’s edict against “resisting and obstructing” a police officer was designed to give cops a bludgeon to harass, intimidate, and punish people who annoy them without committing an actual crime.

Representing herself, with a public defender in an advisory role, Robin requested a jury trial — which was heard in a county court, rather than by a Springfield municipal judge. She won acquittal on the charge of obstructing an officer and a second charge of third-degree assault (arising from an uncorroborated allegation that she bit one of the arresting officers while in the hospital, which, if true, would have required that Robin receive treatment for rabies).

Exonerated of any “criminal” behavior, Robin proceeded to give the city of Springfield unshirted hell.

With the benefit of a smattering of legal education and a full, foamy head of righteous rage, Robin filed a civil rights lawsuit against Springfield, Police Chief Lynn Rowe, several officers, and the assistant city prosecutor. This began a legal war of attrition that would last nine years, cost Springfield an estimated $11,587.16, exhaust the services of six city attorneys, and — more importantly — claim countless hours of Robin’s life that she could have put to much better use had she not been needlessly assaulted on her own front porch that chilly January morning.

On two occasions, Robin’s suit was dismissed by U.S. District Court Judge Dean Whipple, who ruled that she had been properly arrested.

Referring to Judge Whipple, Robin commented to Pro Libertate: “He’s the orneriest, most willful old cuss — he’s just as stubborn as I am. In spite of everything, I just adore him, because he was fair. He understood that I’m not an attorney, and he was willing to help me understand many of the difficult legal issues, but he didn’t give me any latitude; he forced me to make my case. I think it would be fun to play a round of golf with him, or maybe spend some time shooting pool.”

After each dismissal, Robin — displaying the tenacity of a Pit Bull — filed another appeal. On her third attempt she succeeded in getting a jury trial. In an odd turn of events, the same Judge Whipple who had twice dismissed Robin’s case ruled that the Springfield anti-obstruction statute — Ordinance 26-17 — improperly allowed the police to criminalize constitutionally protected speech. This resulted in a judicial order that Springfield pay Robin $25,000 as punishment for violating her rights.

Displaying a dishonest child’s gift for depraved creativity and a pathological indifference to truth, the Springfield municipal government had restructured its ordinance code; by the time Judge Whipple ruled against Springfield, the measure in question was not listed as Ordinance 26-17, but rather 78-32(1). This supposedly meant that the ruling didn’t apply to the current law.

(The city government had earlier played a similar trick with the municipal “dog at large” ordinance, quietly revising it subsequent to Robin’s arrest to provide an exception for the police.)

Not only did Judge Whipple not buy that argument, he was offended that Springfield was trying to sell it: On August 13 he issued an order barring enforcement of the ordinance, by whatever designation the city chose for it.

And yet, Springfield continues in its dilatory tactics.

“They haven’t paid a cent,” Robin reported to Pro Libertate. “They’re trying to get me to sign a settlement document that would hold them ‘harmless,’ and refusing to release the money to me until I do. They’ve gone so far as to send me a scanned copy of the check for $25,000 and said that all I have to do is get it is to sign a document dismissing any further claims against the city ‘with prejudice.’”

Robin is smart enough to understand that the officials making that offer are not negotiating from a position of strength, where the legal issues are concerned.

“I’ve filed a motion for civil contempt,” she explains. “I’m requesting that the court impose a continuing penalty of $1,000 a day until they pay me what they owe me.” Regrettably, those costs will be passed along to the productive residents of Springfield, rather than being extracted from the representatives of the parasite class responsible for the violation of Robin McDermott’s rights — but she isn’t responsible for that fact.

Robin’s long-sought and hard-won triumph shouldn’t engender unrealistic hopes that we can beat the statist system by using that system; her happy outcome is a blessed anomaly. Had the same incident occurred in 2008, rather than 1998, it’s entirely possible that some overgrown adolescent in uniform would have shot or tasered Robin to death.

During the decade that Robin battled for her rights in court, overkill has become institutionalized — a fact of which she is painfully aware. “Our local Sheriff just applied for a grant to buy a grenade launcher with drug forfeiture funds,” she complained to me. “Just what on earth does the Sheriff need with a grenade launcher?”

Robin McDermott, a small woman with burdens that Atlas might find daunting, is a “real American” — an individual who, in the words of former Seattle police chief Norm Stamper, is willing to meet the police “at the threshold at home and [say], ‘no, you can’t come in. Show me your warrant.’”

In this age of collectivist conformity, real Americans are tragically thin on the ground. One of them lives in Springfield, Missouri.

William Norman Grigg [send him mail] publishes the Pro Libertate blog and hosts the Pro Libertate radio program.

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