Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Bubbles' Effect

I never saw the Officer Bubbles cartoons when they first made their way across YouTube; it was only after they were removed and returned, and the newspapers started making a big deal of how Toronto Police Constable Josephs sued YouTube for defamation over it, that I checked one out - after all, if people want to suppress it, there's got to be something worthwhile about it. Afterward I went straight to the source, the original video clip from those chaotic G20 days that will lurk in Toronto's subconscious for years to come.

For those who aren't familiar with the background - during the G20, a knot of people were standing toe-to-toe with the Toronto Police at Queen Street West and Noble, just around the corner from my old Parkdale digs. A young woman at the front of the crowd was blowing bubbles toward the officers, and Josephs cuts right to the quick: "If the bubble touches me," he says, "you're going to be arrested for assault." Tension ramps up pretty quickly, and the video ends with the woman and a few other people being taken into custody, presumably bound for the Eastern Avenue EconoLodge.

I can understand that Toronto's police officers were under incredible stress over that weekend, and cracks were inevitable; the fact is, they shouldn't have had to be out there in the first place, and if Canadians were a people really dedicated to our principles, Stephen Harper would've gone back to Ottawa to find all his stuff scattered on the Parliament Hill lawn and a new lock on his office door. Still, it was ultimately their choice on how they conducted myself - and I believe that heavy-handed responses like Constable Josephs' not only kept tension high, but may well fuel a climate for disrespect of the police.

Mounted Toronto Police officers on Yonge Street, January 2010

What really got me thinking was whether you could, in fact, be arrested for assault for the high crime of blowing bubbles at a police officer - so I dove into the Criminal Code, something I haven't really looked at since Law class in high school. Section 270 covers "Assaulting a peace officer," so I went there first.

Assaulting a peace officer

270. (1) Every one commits an offence who

(a) assaults a public officer or peace officer engaged in the execution of his duty or a person acting in aid of such an officer;
(b) assaults a person with intent to resist or prevent the lawful arrest or detention of himself or another person; or
(c) assaults a person
(i) who is engaged in the lawful execution of a process against lands or goods or in making a lawful distress or seizure, or
(ii) with intent to rescue anything taken under lawful process, distress or seizure.

Assaulting peace officer with weapon or causing bodily harm

270.01 (1) Everyone commits an offence who, in committing an assault referred to in section 270,

(a) carries, uses or threatens to use a weapon or an imitation of one; or
(b) causes bodily harm to the complainant.

I see nothing in here about annoying police officers being an offence - which is good, because a law like that would be tailor-made for abuse. Nor do I believe a reasonable person would consider a child's bubble blower to be "a weapon or an imitation thereof," or that blowing bubbles would be reason "believe on reasonable grounds that he has, present ability to effect his purpose." So that leaves the first definition of assault, which occurs when "without the consent of another person, [a person] applies force intentionally to that other person, directly or indirectly."

You certainly could argue that a soap bubble does have potential energy while it's blowing in the wind, which on contact with a police officer would be translated into small, but measurable, kinetic force. Or you could argue, as Constable Josephs seems to, that a detergent bubble bursting in an officer's eye is the problem - and that would fall under "bodily harm," right? The Criminal Code has something to say about that: "'bodily harm' means any hurt or injury to a person that interferes with the health or comfort of the person and that is more than merely transient or trifling in nature."

I don't think you would easily be able to find a reasonable person who would argue that a soap bubble, even bursting right on the eye, would be more than a "transient or trifling" hurt or injury to a person. It would have been better for the officer to cite the specific section of the Criminal Code that our "mystery" woman was flirting with arrest under; not only would it have made the job easier on me, but it would not have looked the same way it does now - namely, an officer threatening to arrest someone for pissing them off.

Ultimately, what we seem to be left with is police officers who will arrest you because you're annoying them and they want to get you out of their faces. I couldn't find anything covering that in the Criminal Code: if I'm missing something important that totally blows the doors off my argument, please let me know in a comment. What I don't think I'm wrong about, though, is that the idea that police officers will capriciously arrest people for doing things like blowing bubbles at them will only lead to a climate of dislike, distrust, and opposition to the people who are meant to uphold the law. That's a place we really don't want to go.


  1. Inaccurate interpretation. The key is the word "assault", not whether it was done with a weapon. See s. 265, which defines "assault".

    "265. (1) A person commits an assault when

    (a) without the consent of another person, he applies force intentionally to that other person, directly or indirectly;"

    This would inform whether one has "assaulted" a police officer. While being hit with bubbles may constitute the slightest possible force, it is probably still a "force", as you admit. So clearly Officer Bubbles was right all along. You should apologize.

  2. I was going to write up a response to this, but then I stopped and thought - that's hilarious. You're hilarious.