By Daniel Horwitz:
In an absolutely outrageous abuse of law enforcement authority, Pittsburgh police are celebrating the fact that they have just filed criminal charges against a Nashville Predators fan for tossing a catfish onto the ice during game one of the Stanley Cup finals. Until the inevitable change of course—when law enforcement claims that this was all just an innocent misunderstanding that was really meant to be a joke—the culprit faces criminal prosecution for: (1) possessing instruments of crime (specifically: a catfish); (2) disorderly conduct (catfish throwing); and (3) disrupting meetings and processions (of a hockey game, for Chrissake, where throwing hats on the ice is, on appropriate occasions, part of the Fans’ Code of Conduct).
At the time, the fan’s successful execution of the beloved 14-year-old Nashville hockey tradition—originally inspired by Detroit Red Wings fans, who have been tossing octopuses on their home ice for more than half a century—was met with widespread merriment. Local superstar Carrie Underwood, who also happens to be the wife of Predators Captain Mike Fisher, adoringly tweeted that the culprit was her “hero”—instantly generating agreement from 10,000 approving fans. Sports Blog Nation called on hockey lovers to “embrace the catfish” after it inspired the Preds’ furious comeback from a 3-0 first period deficit. Local Nashville politics writer Steven Hale correctly observed that the tosser “should not pay for a drink the rest of the series.” In sum: with just one exception, every non-marine creature and non-PETA member in the Animal Kingdom who witnessed the stunt enjoyed it, and nobody (except the catfish) was hurt.
Unfortunately, that one exception happens to be the Pittsburgh Police Department, whose officers—in addition to carrying badges and guns—apparently have the world’s worst judgment and the sense of humor of a Columbian drug cartel. The statutes that Jacob Waddell is currently accused of violating can be found here, here, and here, respectively. His “possessing instruments of a crime” charge alone appears to carry up to five years in prison and a $10,000.00 fine. Hilarious indeed.
Many have responded (appropriately) by mocking the Pittsburgh Police for their outrageousness here. Fittingly, those trolling the department even include the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, which published a photo of the offending “criminal instrument” on the ice along with the note that: “We’ve seen a lot of ‘instruments of crime’ over the years. Can’t honestly say we’ve seen a case with one of these.” “Instrument of Crime” t-shirts emblazoned with a wriggling catfish have already popped up online, and several members of Nashville’s Metro Council are in the midst of drafting a resolution calling for Mr. Waddell to be pardoned. Generally speaking, everyone’s having a good laugh at Pittsburgh’s expense, which its Police Department rightly deserves in spades.
Lost in much of the mockery, however, is the more serious significance of the Pittsburgh Police Department’s misconduct here. There is no such thing as an insignificant criminal charge. People who have a criminal record—a list of more than 65 million Americans that now includes at least one harmless catfish tosser—are all instantly subject to legal discrimination in employment, housing, and other areas of civic life. If Mr. Waddell ever applies for a new job, for example, many employers will require him to check a box indicating that he has previously been charged with a crime, and few will ever give him the opportunity to explain why. His mugshot will be a public record. If he ever seeks to become an attorney or a member of another highly regulated profession, Tennessee’s famously unreasonable Board of Law Examiners could deny him the opportunity based on “lack of character and fitness” attributable to his charges. Altogether, a state-by-state inventory cataloging the tens of thousands of collateral consequences that Mr. Waddell now faces in each state as a result of his criminal charges can be accessed here.
To be clear: Mr. Waddell did not actually possess anything that can reasonably be construed as an instrument of a crime. The Pittsburgh Police also don’t initiate mass disorderly conduct arrests or “disrupting meetings and processions” arrests after Sidney Crosby hat tricks—indicating rather persuasively that they don’t traditionally consider throwing items onto the ice to be criminal acts. So why, exactly, did this happen? The answer, quite literally, is that Mr. Waddell was charged with multiple crimes because he was an opposing fan who was carrying out a harmless Predators fan tradition. The fact that the Pittsburgh Police inexplicably thought their arrest would be so popular that they touted it in a press release makes this an especially pointed example of the kind of abuse and massive overcriminalization that has been creeping into American jurisdictions for decades. Tragically, though, examples of such overcriminalization are far from isolated.
Ultimately, this situation will resolve itself because the poor PR that it has generated demands it. After the smoke clears, though, the hapless officers of the Pittsburgh Police Department will continue to arrest people for harmless, minor crimes that serve to ruin their lives forever—and they will not be alone in doing so. And that, unfortunately, is no laughing matter.
Update 1: The Mayor of Pittsburgh has released a statement making light of the situation as well. It reads: “This has turned into a whale of a story. From my perch, I agree with Mayor Barry that we shouldn’t be baited into interfering with this fish tale, but if the charges eventually make their way to a judge I hope the predatory catfish hurler who got the hook last night is simply sentenced to community service, perhaps cleaning fish at Wholey’s.”
Update 2: The Pittsburgh District Attorney has dropped all charges. From The Tennessean: “‘Having reviewed the affidavit involving Mr. Waddell as well as the television coverage of the incident, District Attorney Zappala has made the determination that the actions of Mr. Waddell do not rise to the level of criminal charges,’ a statement from Allegheny County District Attorney spokesman Mike Manko reads.”