On Heels of Large Crowds and Couch Burnings, HRC Considers Disorderly Conduct Ordinance

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A crowd formed in St. Ann's Plaza after MSU's victory over rival University of Michigan.

Days after several mass gatherings of students and couch burnings following MSU’s upset of the University of Michigan, the Human Rights Commission (formerly the Human Relations Commission) will again take up consideration of East Lansing’s disorderly conduct ordinance, Ordinance 1491 on Wednesday at 7 p.m.

Ordinance 1491 covers a large set of behaviors including, among other things, public intoxication, public urination, making false reports, hindering a police officer or firefighter from executing their duties, and rioting.

The HRC and City Council discussed the ordinance several times over the summer in efforts to address possible bias in policing and move away from punitive measures toward problem-solving. 

In East Lansing, riots and associated destruction typically arise from game-related celebrations (or displeasure). At a Sept, 8 City Council meeting, Mayor Pro Tem Jessy Gregg referred to an earlier conversation she had with then-Interim Police Chief Steve Gonzalez. She recalled that Gonzalez said this part of the code has been used in East Lansing solely to deal with out-of-control celebrations that have turned destructive.

But, Gregg acknowledged, the law as written did not limit prosecution to just riots or couch burnings following a game. Subsections of the ordinance outline specific behaviors that can result in a criminal charge, regardless of the motivation.

The robust debate at Council included comments from recently-elected HRC Vice Chair Krystal Davis and former Vice Chair Karen Hoene. The HRC, which had discussed revisions to the ordinance at its August and September meetings, suggested striking subsections on rioting to remove subjectivity from the law and to avoid the possibility of “stacking” — bringing multiple charges against one person for the same action. 

Council member Lisa Babcock noted that a local ordinance with less-stringent punishments for rioting protects individuals from harsher penalties at the state level. East Lansing’s existing ordinance allows for up to 90 days in jail and fines at the misdemeanor level. If there is no such local ordinance, prosecutors can only prosecute charges under state law, which can carry a sentence of 5-10 years and a felony record. 

Davis argued that now is the time for radical change and called for most disorderly conduct to result in a citation, not a misdemeanor.

Crowds and burned couches in mind as the conversation resumes

But days before the HRC’s renewed discussions on disorderly conduct, large crowds at Cedar Village and St. Ann’s Plaza, located near the corner of M.A.C. and Albert Ave, required police presence to disperse them. 

One person shared with ELi footage of a large crowd gathered in St. Ann’s Street Plaza. Writing to ELi, the person said, “No masks no social distancing. East Lansing Police car parked on MAC Ave.” 

The crowd at St. Ann Plaza following the MSU victory on Halloween.

The individual then followed up by saying, “More police just arrived….students dispersed.” 

ELPD Deputy Chief Steve Gonzalez told ELi on Monday that “The crowds in both the Ann Plaza and Cedar Village were quickly dispersed with officers walking through the crowd directing them to disperse.”

According to Gonzalez, 11 citations were issued this past weekend for violations of public health orders, including the one that restricts outdoor gathering size.

The crowd at St. Ann Plaza disperses.

At Cedar Village, a group of approximately 300 students gathered as at least one couch was burned.

The charred remains of several  couches littered streets near Cedar Village and downtown after the crowds dispersed.

There was no apparent violence stemming from either gathering and no arrests made, but it brings to the forefront concerns about a disorderly conduct ordinance being a necessity in East Lansing, where large crowds can quickly amass. 

And the crowds Saturday were all the more concerning given the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Ingham County Health Officer Linda Vail told ELi on Monday that it is much harder to control crowd sizes on public thoroughfares. In the lead-up to the MSU-Michigan football game, Vail had further restricted outdoor gathering size to 10 individuals in some student-heavy parts of East Lansing, but her order only covered private residences.

Vail told ELi that enforcing public health orders has become easier since Council passed Ordinance 1496, which makes it a civil infraction to violate public health orders. She believes citations are more effective than her issuing cease-and-desist letters to alleged violators, as had been the practice before the ordinance was passed.

Vail also mentioned that some students have confronted her regarding the order and questioned her legal authority to limit gathering size, citing the example of one fraternity member who contacted her to voice discontent that the public had not been consulted.

Vail, in turn, expressed her frustration over the interaction, stating that a college student should be able to easily find in the emergency order that her powers are derived from Section 2453 of Michigan’s Public Health Code, 1978. 

She hopes, ultimately, that more MSU students realize that the short-term sacrifice of reducing the size of gatherings will yield the long-term result of curbing the spread of Covid-19.

“It’s disappointing,” Vail said. She told her own kids it’s simply “short-term pain for long-term gain.” 

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