Man's Rhode Island beach arrest centered on whether he was on public or private land
A weekend walk on the beach put Charlestown resident Scott Keeley under arrest. Keeley was gathering seaweed that he uses to fertilize his garden when the police were called.
"One thing I was sure I could do is walk along the shore and pick up seaweed,” Keeley told NBC 10 News on Tuesday. “So, I walked away and I picked up some seaweed, and that's when he said, 'You're under arrest.'"
He was walking in an area along the water west of Charlestown Town Beach. He was technically over the line in South Kingstown.
Some homeowners have hired a security guard to keep the beach in front of their houses private, and one of those guards called police on Keeley.
But according to the Rhode Island State Constitution, specifically Article I, Section 17, anyone is allowed to use the beach as long as they are engaged in an activity. The constitution even specifically mentions gathering seaweed.
The article reads:
The people shall continue to enjoy and freely exercise all the rights of fishery, and the privileges of the shore, to which they have been heretofore entitled under the charter and usages of this state, including but not limited to fishing from the shore, the gathering of seaweed, leaving the shore to swim in the sea, and passage along the shore.
Further, Keeley pointed out that Article I, Section 16 states:
“The rights of the people to enjoy and freely exercise the rights of fishery and the privileges of the shore, as those rights and duties are set forth in Section 17, shall be an exercise of the police powers of the state, shall be liberally construed, and shall not be deemed to be a public use of private property.”
Rhode Island statute also cites State v. Ibbison from July 20, 1982, in defining the area consisting of "mean high tide." That is the average area where the tide reaches at its highest point at any given time a year. The ruling notes that any portion of the shoreline within the mean high tide area is accessible to the public.
In citing Jackovny v. Powel from 1941, state law says that erecting a barrier along the shore is unconstitutional.
Keeley said he was gathering seaweed in the mean high tide zone, and cell phone video released to NBC 10 of the arrest shows that he is near the wet, flat portion of the beach along the shoreline.
"It's strange to be arrested for willful trespass when the land is not marked in any way,” Keeley said.
Residents that have lived on the beach in the area for many decades have differing opinions than the group that hired the security guard. They feel that such strict enforcement will alienate people who want to take advantage of Rhode Island’s unique shoreline access.
"According to the Coastal Resource Management booklet, you can walk, you can fish, you can put your towel down and go swimming, you can gather seaweed, but you can't be stationary,” said Lorna Browning, a resident of the area for more than 40 years.
Organizations like the Rhode Island Shore Access Coalition and Clean Ocean Access continue to fight for people's rights to access the shoreline. In the end, South Kingstown police decided not to charge Keeley because the chief said there is no clear definition of the high water line, though he and Keeley contend the arresting officer was acting within the scope of his duties.