Man Who Recorded Viral CPD Arrest Heads to Court for Obstruction

A civil rights attorney tells CityBeat that proving obstruction will be “a very high bar to get over” for the state.

Jun 18, 2024 at 4:38 pm
Eddie Lee's viral video of a June 1 arrest sparked concern among viewers who thought Officer Orlando Smith's reaction to Lee was excessive. Smith has been the subject of investigations at the Cincinnati Police Department in the past.
Eddie Lee's viral video of a June 1 arrest sparked concern among viewers who thought Officer Orlando Smith's reaction to Lee was excessive. Smith has been the subject of investigations at the Cincinnati Police Department in the past. Photo: Facebook screenshot

The man who recorded the now-viral arrest video that sparked backlash against the Cincinnati Police Department has been charged with obstruction, but a civil rights attorney tells CityBeat that it could be tough for the state to prove Eddie Lee’s actions interfered with CPD’s arrest.

Lee and his friend, Johnny Taylor, were among a group of people at the Government Square bus stop in downtown Cincinnati on June 1 when he said police approached and accused them of smoking weed.

“That’s what he said, ‘I can’t believe y’all sitting over here smoking weed while I’m standing across the street.’ Nobody was smoking any weed,” Lee told CityBeat. “Then, Johnny had stood up and said, ‘You can’t talk to us like that.’”

CPD has not yet released the requested body camera footage from the incident. The footage will likely be released once investigations into the incident are completed – one internally at CPD, one by the Citizen’s Complaint Authority and one from the Hamilton County prosecutor’s office. But Metro security footage from the moments before the incident was requested and released by the Cincinnati Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) on Facebook, showing some individuals appearing to smoke, though it’s not explicitly clear what they are smoking; Taylor is seen opening a small package and removing what appears to be a cigar and a woman in a red dress appears to roll a joint. There’s also a man sitting on a bench who appears to combine alcohol with a mixer in a bottle.

Ken Kober, president of the FOP union, emphasized to CityBeat that more serious illegal activity is a problem at Government Square.

“There were 103 arrests that occurred at Government Square in 2023: 10 guns recovered, 62 offense reports, two homicides, five felonious assaults, shootings, seven robberies,” Kober said. “This has become a very, very violent area. Metro has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into paying for outside employment for police officers to be there to combat these very crimes that are being committed.”

Lee told CityBeat the scene at the Government Square was peaceful before police got involved on June 1, but that it quickly grew tense when an officer approached Taylor. That’s when Lee started recording.

“The reason why I was taking the video, I was about to call his uncle to tell him, like, he’s getting into it with the police,” Lee said. “As it was going on I just pushed video and I was just going to show him later. You know, send it to him.”

The video starts with an argument between a CPD officer and Taylor, who is seen in the video wearing an IHOP uniform.

The officer tries to tase Taylor who removes the device’s darts, unaffected. From there, a chaotic scene is captured by Lee. Officers struggle to get Taylor’s hands behind his back. There’s shouts, mace, an officer’s gun drawn – all while Lee records and repeatedly tells officers that Taylor is not armed.

Read a play-by-play of the video here.

Watch the viral video below:
The video cuts off as an officer places Lee’s hands behind his back. He was charged with one count of obstructing official business, a second degree misdemeanor.

“Right then they just put me in handcuffs,” Lee said.

After spending two nights in the Hamilton County Justice Center, Lee pleaded not guilty to obstructing official business, according to court documents.

After his release on June 3, Lee posted the arrest video on Facebook, racking up more than 22 million views on Facebook and 6 million views on X (formerly Twitter) as of June 17. The swift backlash to the scene Lee captured prompted CPD to release a statement announcing its investigation.

"The Cincinnati Police Department is aware of a video posted to social media that depicts a portion of an arrest involving CPD officers and three citizens. [...] We as an agency understand that a video such as this generates many comments, concerns, and opinions, and can diminish the public’s trust. We are committed to transparency and the safety of our officers and citizens will always remain a top priority. Situations such as this allow us all to have honest conversations to grow together, learn together, and maximize our full potential as a strong city," the statement reads in part.

When does recording police amount to obstruction?

It is lawful in Ohio to record police while they’re doing their job, according to the Ohio Bar Association, but there are parameters.

“You cannot interfere with police officers while they perform their duties. While there is no law against talking to police officers when they are performing their duties, you need to be careful not to say things that could escalate the situation, cause others to interfere with the police or cause others to resist arrest,” reads an online explainer from the Ohio State Bar Association. “If the officer interprets your speech as interference or disorderly conduct, you could be charged with a crime. Whether or not your actions amount to a crime will be determined by the details of the situation.”

Fanon Rucker is a civil rights attorney in Cincinnati, as well as a former prosecutor, judge and current senior executive advisor of the Center for Social Justice at the Urban League of Greater Southwest Ohio. He told CityBeat that charging someone for obstruction is one thing, but proving obstruction in court carries a much higher bar.

“What you have to prove is not just that the person did it or had the intention to do it, but under the law, that it had the effect of hampering or hindering that official in their public duties,” he said. “That's what they have to prove by proof beyond a reasonable doubt, that his yelling and his standing out there actually somehow delayed their ability, or hampered their ability to perform their jobs. You know, five, six officers out there, that’s gonna be, as it should be, a very high bar to get over for the state to prove that.”

Kober stands by the officer’s decision to charge Lee with obstruction, saying the charges are appropriate because Lee walked forward after initially following officers’ orders to back up.

“If a police officer tells you to back up and you take one step backwards but then you take three steps forward, that kind of defeats the purpose of what this officer is telling you to do. That’s what was occurring in this situation,” Kober said. “It had nothing to do with him filming.”

While officer Orlando Smith stands between Lee and the unfolding arrest, Smith's gun drawn, Lee appears to take side-to-side steps, keeping his camera in view of Taylor’s arrest.

"You can't block me, bro," Lee says in the recording.

“It’s almost like they’re doing a do-si-do square dance,” Kober said. “Every time Mr. Lee moves one way, so does that officer. The reason is, and that officer’s belief is that, had he not blocked his path to get to where these officers are in a physical confrontation, he would have [engaged in that physical confrontation.]”

Lee disagrees.

“I wasn’t trying to stop the officers physically by grabbing them, anything like that,” Lee told CityBeat. “I was complying with the officers. They told me to back up, I was backing up.”

Speaking on behalf of the Urban League’s Center for Social Justice, Rucker said he was concerned with the apparent lack of de-escalation techniques used by officers in Lee’s video. He hopes the internal and external investigations will be open and appropriate.

“When we see that, we don't see de-escalation,” he said. “As citizens when we see that, it looks like more force was used than necessary in subduing and arresting this guy, is what it looks like. But we're not police experts. We're not investigatory bodies. There are three investigations that are going on right now, and we have to trust that out of those three, the process will be transparent and the conclusion will be the appropriate one.”

Kober is standing by his fellow officers’ handling of the arrest, even praising them for showing “remarkable” restraint.

“These officers, their restraint was remarkable,” he said. “This entire incident could have been avoided simply by when the officer went over to the first time and told them to stop smoking marijuana here, stop drinking in public, if they would have just said, ‘You know what? You're right officer, we're going to head out and go somewhere else.’ We wouldn't be talking about this today.”

Lee is scheduled to appear in court on June 21.

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