Professor Arrested after Bomb Joke Bombs

stand-up-comicI had a double take after seeing this Inside Higher Ed story in my feed:

A drama instructor at the University of California at Davis was arrested last week over a joking reference to student evaluations he had with him as “a bomb,” a remark that a few students took literally, The Sacramento Bee reported. Most of the students in the class signed a statement later saying that the instructor was clearly joking about how the evaluations might hurt his career. The instructor was jailed for four days before charges were dropped.

After my Whiskey Tango Foxtrot initial reaction, I clicked through to the link for details.

Two documents obtained by The Bee on Wednesday illustrate vastly different interpretations of what happened in a UC Davis acting class last week that led campus police to arrest an instructor and have him jailed for four days.

A University of California, Davis, police declaration supporting the arrest of James Marchbanks describes the fear three students reportedly felt when he presented an envelope holding end-of-course evaluations by saying, “I have a bomb.”  “There was no expression of a smile or indicating he was joking,” a student told campus police, according to the declaration. “My stomach dropped and I felt my life flash before my eyes.”

But a letter reportedly signed by 13 other students in the class says Marchbanks was clearly using a figure of speech to present the documents that might “bomb” his career.

Marchbanks was released Tuesday from the Yolo County jail after prosecutors said they did not have enough information to decide whether he should be charged with a crime. They asked university police for a more complete report.

[…]

Marchbanks was wearing his backpack on one shoulder when he told his class, “I have a bomb, this is the last time I am ever going to see you. I am going to leave class before the bomb goes off but you are all going to stay here until it’s done,” according to the campus police declaration. “He unzipped the backpack and reached in … he pulled out the folder with his class evaluations and pencils and threw it on the ground and ran out the door without another word,” the declaration states.

[…]

Based on their statements Thursday, campus police on Friday asked a Yolo County judge for a warrant to arrest Marchbanks on suspicion of three crimes: making a terrorist threat, false imprisonment and making a false bomb threat, according to the police declaration.

The bail for those violations combined should be $55,000, according to the bail schedule posted on the Yolo Superior Court Web site.

Marchbanks’ bail was set at $150,000, but authorities could not explain Wednesday why his bail was so high. UC Davis Police Chief Annette Spicuzza said her department did not ask for enhanced bail and that he has no criminal past. Prosecutor Jonathan Raven said his office did not ask for enhanced bail. And a Yolo Superior Court spokeswoman said judges generally do not increase bail beyond the scheduled amount without a request from police or prosecutors.

One would think it would have been clear at some point early in the process that Marchbanks did not, in fact, have a bomb in his backpack.  And, yet, he was jailed for four days?  And they’re still trying to decide whether to charge him with a crime?!

Seriously?

FILED UNDER: General
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Franklin says:

    The terrorists have won. Seems like a good percentage of Americans just piss themselves at a moment’s notice.

  2. Many have clearly allowed fear of terrorism to utterly cloud their judgment. While making bomb jokes are almost certainly inadvisable, the notion that doing so could lead to 4 days in jail is criminal.

    Surely this could have been sorted out by a little bit of questioning at most?

  3. PD Shaw says:

    The Prof must be a great actor to convince students there was a bomb in the envelope(s).

  4. Alex Knapp says:

    Thus overhyping the threat of terrorism doth make cowards of us all…

  5. Steve Plunk says:

    What a jerk. Four days in jail might help him understand how he is supposed to act in a classroom. Another example of an overinflated ego charged with teaching young people. Fire his worthless behind.

  6. Wayne says:

    With this type of silliness and the PC crowd and people still say we have freedom of speech.

  7. What a jerk. Four days in jail might help him understand how he is supposed to act in a classroom. Another example of an overinflated ego charged with teaching young people. Fire his worthless behind

    He may well have been a jerk. However, jerkiness is not a jailable offense (thankfully).

  8. Trumwill says:

    How bizarre, UC-Davis is supposed to be a good school with smart kids.

  9. brainy435 says:

    Telling bad jokes is not a crime in this country.

    If it was Texas would have executed Carrot Top years ago.

  10. yetanotherjohn says:

    What if a Muslim army major told a class that Muslim suicide bombers were heroes? Just a joke right? No reason to take it seriously.

    We don’t know all the details about what happened here, past history of the professor, etc (I suspect that the set of students making the complaint and the set of those giving him poor evaluations may overlap). But look yourself in the mirror and say that if they had immediately released him and he then did commit a terrorist act (or he commits one over the next 4 days) that you would say the police had no reason to have held him and any deaths he caused were unavoidable.

    I also suspect, with out knowing, that he acted churlishly to the police when they went to question him. While that is not itself a crime, it is rank stupidity. Politeness costs you very little.

    Also note, that I haven’t heard anything that says that the police overstepped their bounds in what they did. I stand with Teddy that if there is a problem with the wisdom of a law, the best way to address the problem is to rigorously enforce the law. Then those who make the law can see the lack of wisdom and make changes.

  11. Alex Knapp says:

    What if a Muslim army major told a class that Muslim suicide bombers were heroes? Just a joke right? No reason to take it seriously.

    Um, yeah, because the two scenarios here are exactly parallel.

    We don’t know all the details about what happened here, past history of the professor, etc (I suspect that the set of students making the complaint and the set of those giving him poor evaluations may overlap). But look yourself in the mirror and say that if they had immediately released him and he then did commit a terrorist act (or he commits one over the next 4 days) that you would say the police had no reason to have held him and any deaths he caused were unavoidable.

    By that logic, why don’t we just throw everyone in jail. Then we can guarantee that no terrorist acts will be committed…

    I also suspect, with out knowing, that he acted churlishly to the police when they went to question him. While that is not itself a crime, it is rank stupidity. Politeness costs you very little.

    Because god forbid we expect police officers to behave in a professional manner and not abuse their authority. No no–if the cops are abusive, it’s because the civilian deserved it for being rude about being harrassed by cops for telling a joke.

    Also note, that I haven’t heard anything that says that the police overstepped their bounds in what they did.

    Except, of course, for the complete lack of evidence that a crime was committed.

    I stand with Teddy that if there is a problem with the wisdom of a law, the best way to address the problem is to rigorously enforce the law.

    Even a rigorous enforcement of this law should not have resulted in detention.

    Then those who make the law can see the lack of wisdom and make changes.

    And screw the people who suffer as a consequence of that attitude.

  12. Wayne says:

    Yetanotherjohn
    Good points but from what was given, I would go with the 13 students over the 3 students. I few details that would help are if he actually ran as in fast out of class or if that description was figurative and what the students did after he left. If they ran as in fast from the class or took action as if they believe him then would say a good deal.

  13. Wayne says:

    Re “Except, of course, for the complete lack of evidence that a crime was committed.”

    Do you consider testimony by three witnesses as a complete lack of evidence?

  14. Alex Knapp says:

    Do you consider testimony by three witnesses as a complete lack of evidence?

    The testimony does not indicate that all of the elements of the crimes in question were even met. There’s no false imprisonment because there was no indication of restraint against the students. There’s no terrorist threat because there wasn’t a bomb. At best, there may have some indication for the “false bomb threat” charge, but I think the mens rea element is lacking.

  15. yetanotherjohn says:

    Wayne, They did. It just took 4 days to weigh all the factors.

    Alex,
    If you can’t see the parallel, sorry. No one thought that the army major was an issue until he was an issue. No one thinks the prof is an issue until he may be an issue. The point is still there. If a more vigorous follow up had happened in the army, 13 people would still be alive. A more vigorous follow up happened here and it appears (though we still don’t know) that there is smoke but no fire here.

    This isn’t lock up all people. This is lock up one person by whom on the face of the report a threat was made. The fact that the words could be interpreted different ways. Your issue on the mens rea is one for prosecution, not investigation. The purpose of the investigation is intended to determine if there is a mens rea.

    You have a right to stable hundred dollar bills to your clothes and walk free of harm around Austin. It would be smarter to do so in some parts of Austin than others. But whatever your right, it wouldn’t be the smartest thing to do. Likewise, you have a right to be as obnoxious to the police as you want while they are trying to do their job. And likewise, there are times that would not be the smartest thing to do. Sorry if reality offends you, but that is the real world.

    I have a bomb, this is the last time I am ever going to see you. I am going to leave class before the bomb goes off but you are all going to stay here until it’s done,

    That is a prima facia case for a terrorist threat. Add to it his behavior of running out of the class room and is it really that easy for you to say the was “a complete lack of evidence”?

  16. Alex Knapp says:

    yetanotherjohn,

    If you can’t see the parallel, sorry. No one thought that the army major was an issue until he was an issue.

    That is, in fact, an incorrect statement.

    No one thinks the prof is an issue until he may be an issue.

    He won’t be.

    A more vigorous follow up happened here and it appears (though we still don’t know) that there is smoke but no fire here.

    There’s not even smoke here.

    This is lock up one person by whom on the face of the report a threat was made.

    There was no “threat” made. A joke was incorrectly interpreted by three people who appear, from their witness statements, to have difficulty with the concept of shoelace tying. This should have been cleared up in 15 minutes, not four days.

    do. Likewise, you have a right to be as obnoxious to the police as you want while they are trying to do their job. And likewise, there are times that would not be the smartest thing to do. Sorry if reality offends you, but that is the real world

    It’s attitudes like that that keep Radley Balko in business instead of corrupt cops out of business.

    That is a prima facia case for a terrorist threat. Add to it his behavior of running out of the class room and is it really that easy for you to say the was “a complete lack of evidence”?

    Yes, because I’m not so stupid as to mistake an envelope full of paper for a bomb, and it’s not beyond the realm of possiblilty for me that a drama teacher might use performance as a lecture style.

  17. yetanotherjohn says:

    alex, let’s assume the exact same fact case. prof pulls outpackage, makes statement about bomb and then runs out. Now add that the police get a warrant and find at the prof’s home there was bomb making material and a package in the same style envelope with a bomb in it. Just to make it easy assume the prof’s fingerprints and dna all over the bomb and materials. Any problem seeing the terrorist threat? It would be reasonable for a jury to conclude he intented to set off a bomb but was a dufus and picked up the wrong package.
    So what is the difference? In the second scenario the police investigate the exact same smoke and find fire. In both cases there is a statement made that was of enough concern for a complaint to be filed and an investigation made. If the bomb making material and bomb had been at his weekend cabin, parents garage, storage unit, girlfriends house, motel 6 he rented, etc the case would essentially be the same.
    In the first case you deride the police and in the second you deride the prof for being a dufus. The difference is what the investigation turned up.
    And that brings us to the difference between arrest and prosecution. If I have a concealed hand gun and permit for same, I can be arrested in Texas for ilegally carrying a gun. The DA is likely to dismiss the case and if not the judge should find for me based on the permit. In Texas there are two laws that the cop has to offer a ticket, all the rest it is their option to arrest. So speed and must offer a ticket, run a red light and officer’s choice of ticket or arrest.
    What you are complaining about is that if you were on the jury, based on facts known you would not convict. But the prof wasn’t convicted, he was arrested. And given that the arrest was likely made before the full investigation, the difference between case 1 and 2 above isn’t known at the time of arrest.

  18. Wayne says:

    If the Professor had a history of angry and hateful attitudes and statements like the Army Major then yes they both should have been investigated earlier. IMO the Major wasn’t just the phony hindsight phenomenon where people look back and pick things out that were actually not that unusual, but actions that should have been look into. I have not seen such evidence so far on this Professor.

    Alex
    If I go up to a bank teller and tell them I have gun in my pocket give me money, it is a threat and attempted robbery even if I don’t have a gun. Granted it is not an arm robbery but it is still a crime. Strapping flares to your body and claiming it is a bomb is a crime. Also you ignore there was a backpack although a large thick vanilla envelope can contain enough explosive to cause harm. A small bomb with the “right” explosive with chemical\agent can be effective but I am not going off on that tangent.

    That said IMO the three either had a beef with the professor or overreacted. The police should have been able to clear this up quicker but it is often better safe than sorry which can be overdone. Also there could have been circumstances to prevent them from doing so. Last day of school, three file the complaint while everyone else went home and college wouldn’t release contact information. Who knows? We don’t.

  19. JVB says:

    Had a drama teacher this arrogant, flippant, and unprofessional, myself. Poetic on some level. I’m sure he’ll sulk and make everyone ‘pay’ for the betrayal once he’s back in class. Students are this stupid, to all the professors out there who like the control and power they over these ignorant minds they ‘educate’. While they exploit them for their own amusement, once in a while a student gets even.

  20. yetanotherjohn says:

    One question is why it took 4 days. And I think the answer is potentially to be found in Alex’s comments.

    We have an account of the words spoken and the fact that three students took it seriously enough to file a complaint. At this point, it would be hard for the police to not investigate. Now we have two potential scenarios for the investigation (I will call them case A and B). Remember, the true facts of the case as outlined in scenario 1 and 2 in my comment above are not known. The police investigators don’t know if this is a joke gone awry or a true threat.

    In case A, the police show up at prof. yetanotherjohn’s house. They are greeted civilly, invited in and a polite discussion ensues. Prof Y explains that the student’s misheard his words, says he is not sure if he should be flattered in the left handed compliment of his acting ability or disappointed in the wits of his students and invites the police to verify for themselves that he has no bomb making facilities in the house. After satisfying themselves that prof Y wasn’t a bomb throwing threat, they leave, file a report saying the incident was a misunderstanding and close the case.

    Now in case B, the police are met at the door by prof Alex. He immediately denounces the presence of the gestapo on his door step, demands to see a warrant before he would talk to them and starts calling for his neighbors to see the violence inherent in the system. The police politely excuse themselves, return to their car and call back to HQ to obtain a search warrant. When it arrives, they again go to the door to talk to prof A. Prof A, starts lecturing them about all the evils of police in this country and refuses to answer any questions without the presence of an attorney. The police then place him under arrest, read him his rights and take him to jail. At each stage, from the initial search, the booking sergeant, the jail guards and the judge giving prof A his initial hearing, prof A fails to win friends but does influence people by continuing to berate all about him as to the evils of the police state, the low mentality evident in someone working for the police and the obvious corruption that is all around him. The judge is so influenced that he takes what would have normally been a $55K bail and put it at $150K without any prompting from the DA. The police do a thorough investigation, satisfy themselves that prof A was a jerk, but not a bomb throwing threat, file a report saying the incident was a misunderstanding, let prof A out of jail and close the case.