Capitol Alert

It’s a crime to refuse to help the police in California. This bill could change that.

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Witnessing a crime and reporting it can be just as frightening as being the victim of a crime. Here’s what you should do if you witness illegal activity.

A California law straight out of the Wild West could soon be no more. A state lawmaker is calling for the repeal of a law that makes it a crime to refuse to help the police.

The California Posse Comitatus Act of 1872 makes it a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 for “an able-bodied person 18 years of age or older” to refuse to comply with a cop’s call for assistance in making an arrest, recapturing a suspect fleeing custody “or preventing a breach of the peace or the commission of any criminal offense.”

That law stems from the California’s wild frontier days, when peace officers were scarce and outlaws were plenty. But it’s roots go back much further: Posse comitatus draws its origins from medieval England.

It has a history of being invoked in different forms throughout America’s early history, including through the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, which empowered federal marshals to form posses to hunt and re-capture escaped slaves, according to Washington Post columnist and historian Dave Kopel .

Senate Bill 192, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Bob Hertzberg, D-Los Angeles, would repeal the nearly 150-year-old law in its entirety.

Hertzberg press secretary Katie Hanzlik said that during the break between legislative sessions, Sen. Hertzberg directed his staff to “take a look into bills that were still on the books that were antiquated or no longer needed. This one definitely fits the bill, and it also happens to be that the senator has a history of supporting or passing laws that minimize unnecessary fines and charges against Californians.”

California police lobbyist groups are still weighing their response.

A spokesman for the California Police Chiefs Association said that the organization has “flagged” the bill but has not yet taken a position. A spokesman for the California Peace Officers Association said that the group is still analyzing the bill and has no stance, “but will communicate with Sen. Hertzberg before our call to determine what other chances he may envision, if any.”

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Andrew Sheeler covers California’s unique political climate for McClatchy. He has covered crime and politics from Interior Alaska to North Dakota’s oil patch to the rugged coast of southern Oregon. He attended the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
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