As a public minister, I often find myself at the tip of the spear when it comes to the First Amendment. Most law enforcement are woefully ill-informed of the laws they are supposed to be enforcing, and any person who shares their faith whether it be public preaching , sign carrying or the distribution of gospel materials, may eventually find themselves in the crosshairs of the local police.
James Battle is just such a person. A resident of the Tucson area, James was in the downtown Tucson bus terminal on April 24, 2013. He was waiting for his wife so that both of them could take a bus home. While waiting, he reasoned that this would be an excellent opportunity to share his faith with interested people who are also waiting for their bus. He traveled up and down the terminal, which is public property, with informational Christian tracts sticking out of his shirt pocket. By his own testimony, he didn’t approach anyone and he certainly didn’t cause a disturbance. He simply made the information available to any interested parties. If they were interested, he would hand them some information and engage them in conversation if they were so inclined.
He was approached by Tucson Police Officer Keith Atchley who told him that he couldn’t distribute any materials without written permission from Sun Tran the company that owns the buses. While this was being discussed a Sun Tran official came on the scene and affirmed that ‘solicitation’ was not allowed. James assured them he wasn’t soliciting and since he was on public property, he was well within his rights to continue with what he was doing. But to appease the Officer and the Sun Tran official, Mr. Battle offered to let people take the literature from his pocket rather than hand it to them. It’s unclear from the reports whether or not this arrangement was agreed upon, but by all indications, the officer and the Sun Tran official both left.
Officer Atchley, according to his own report, watched Mr. Battle through binoculars until he was observed once again committing the heinous crime of handing a piece of paper to another human being. The report also says that Mr. Battle engaged a person in conversation and allowed several people to take literature from his shirt pocket. Tucson’s finest swooped in, telling James Battle “You’re the problem”. He was charged with criminal trespassing and ‘field released’ after signing a ticket. As an aside, the officer appears to have violated the parameters of arrest under the criminal trespass law which would make this an incident of false arrest. James was ordered to leave the bus terminal or face incarceration even though he needed the bus to get home.
Now if this fine example of police work were where the story ended, it would just be another day of ‘protecting and serving’ in Tucson. Officer Atchley could shine his badge some, confident that he was keeping the streets safe from pieces of paper. But James Battle contacted the Center for Religious Expression who fired off a letter to both the Chief of Police Villasenior and Daryl Cole of the Tucson Transportation Department. In the letter Counselor Nate Kellum laid out the case for James Battle’s right to continue his activities. They cited multiple court cases at various levels and assured the recipients, that unless this issue was dealt with properly, legal action would be soon to follow.
The City Attorney of Tucson responded with a letter,which you really need to read in it’s entiretyin order to appreciate. After calling it an ‘alleged encounter’ ,which oddly enough generated a very real police report written by a very real Officer, the bureaucracy buckled. They apologized. They wanted to assure Mr. Battle that he is “welcome to return and continue his expressive activity”. They offer to help him coordinate future activities. They proclaimed to the world that they “value” Mr. Battle’s business. They offer two different phone numbers by which he can get any future clarification. They seem almost on the verge of offering him free piggy back rides.
Now the reason this encounter ( sorry, alleged encounter) turned out so differently than it could have is because, although not a rabble-rouser, James Battle knew what his rights are. He stood his ground and used the rule of law and the Constitution to make his case for him. As law enforcement becomes increasingly about political correctness and revenue generation and decreasingly about the protection of individual liberties, there is a lesson to be learned here. The chances are you will have a police encounter sooner or later, and when you do will you be ready?