Sep 062010
Authors: Kathleen Harward

Many of us assume that being an innocent bystander at a riot is protected by the First Amendment right of the people to peaceably assemble. But this doesn’t take into account Colorado state law that makes it a crime to disobey a public safety order given during a riot or when one is impending. It doesn’t take long under riot conditions for police to blast orders for all bystanders to disperse. Anyone who knowingly disobeys such an order commits a class three misdemeanor, which carries up to six months in jail or a $750 fine or both. The First Amendment right to assemble does not overrule this state law, as courts have long upheld laws designed to promote public safety even when they appear to infringe on constitutional rights.

To be a crime, the disobedience of the police order has to be knowing. The person has to be aware of the order to disperse and choose not to. This crime contains an express exception for a news reporter or other person observing or recording the events on behalf of the public press or other news media, unless he is physically obstructing efforts to cope with the riot. These nuances in the statute raise interesting legal questions: What if you are jammed in the middle of a crowd and you hear the order, want to move, but cannot find a way out? Or you pop out of a restaurant into the fray and you don’t immediately appreciate what’s going on or know that an order has been given? Finally, with the way public news is reported on the Internet through blogs and other interactive, non-traditional means, just who isn’t a person observing events on behalf of the public?

But back to the basics: We also need to be aware that Colorado law defines three other crimes related to riots: inciting a riot; arming rioters and engaging in a riot. These three are more seriously classified crimes, and a conviction carries the additional consequence of being prohibited from attending any state supported college in Colorado for 12 months. This bar from college does not apply to the crime of disobeying a public safety order. Bystanders need to know that they are at risk for getting charged with the more serious crime of engaging in a riot on top of disobedience of a public safety order.

How likely is it that a bystander charged with engaging in a riot would actually be found guilty? We need to remember that our system of law is based on the presumption of innocence. A charged person must be considered innocent until the government proves each element of the charged crime beyond a reasonable doubt. The statute for engaging in a riot does not define engaging. Riot, however, is defined as a public disturbance involving an assemblage of three or more persons, which by tumultuous and violent conduct creates grave danger of damage or injury or substantially obstructs the performance of any governmental function. The government would have to prove these elements against a bystander in order to prove he is guilty of engaging in a riot.

There’s one more law we all need to know: A City of Fort Collins ordinance makes it a crime to knowingly remain in a peace officer’s presence after the officer, acting under color of his authority, has ordered you to move away from his activity. This law applies in any situation and is not tied to riot conditions.

In short, you should immediately leave a riot or any disturbance that could turn into one. The first reason is to avoid harm from rioters or tear gas from police. By leaving, you reduce the size of the problem the police must deal with. Rioters may also lose steam when there is no audience. Have no doubt that the police will
charge bystanders. In any situation, riot or otherwise, the law requires you to obey a police order to leave.

Kathleen Harward is an attorney and director of Student Legal Services, which provides free legal advice to fee-paying CSU students. Letters and feedback can be sent to

 Posted by at 4:25 pm

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