Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Disorderly Conduct in GJ - Part 2

I received a call Tuesday from Kate Porras, Public Information Coordinator for the Grand Junction Police Department. She provided an update and response to my inquiry that was detailed in Monday's post, about a case in which a summons for Disorderly Conduct was issued to a Grand Junction woman for a display that appeared to fall within First Amendment protections of freedom of speech.

Ms. Porras provided me with the following background information:
  • The summons was written due to the incident being a continuation of an ongoing neighbor dispute. Since July 18, GJPD officers had responded 5 times to the area to deal with complaints directed between the same neighbors, and had fielded several phone calls as well.
  • The officer felt that the latest incident, involving the 'PSYCHO' sign, was an attempt to incite or harass the person being targeted. Rather than charge Ms. Stevenson with Harassment, a misdemeanor which would require a County Court appearance, the officer instead opted for Disorderly Conduct, which would be handled in GJ Municipal Court. It was felt that this step was necessary to "get the attention" of the persons involved.
  • The officer's report included that Ms. Stevenson had written a letter of apology to the object of her aggravation. With an "ongoing issue" such as this dispute, the goal of the Police Department is to prevent further escalation. It appears that this is the case with the incident in question.
  • This case will be brought to the attention of the City Attorney's office for further review, due in part to the attention that it has generated.
  • The Police Department is very cognizant of the need to respect and protect the First Amendment rights of those they may come into contact with.
Sounds like a tough call on the part of the officer that handled this. The dispute between the two neighbors, which began when a complaint was registered with the City and their HOA over a sanctioned block party, probably shouldn't have festered that long. According to the officer's report, the alleged victim admitted that she refused to speak with Ms. Stevenson when approached by her about the complaint letter. This apparently led to the adorning of Ms. Stevenson's truck with "PSYCHO" in front of her neighbor's house.

Colorado Revised Statutes, Section 18-9-111 (in part):
(1) A person commits harassment if, with intent to harass, annoy, or alarm another person, he or she:

(a) Strikes, shoves, kicks, or otherwise touches a person or subjects him to physical contact; or

(b) In a public place directs obscene language or makes an obscene gesture to or at another person; or

(c) Follows a person in or about a public place; or

(h) Repeatedly insults, taunts, challenges, or makes communications in offensively coarse language to, another in a manner likely to provoke a violent or disorderly response.
The harassment statute doesn't seem to fit the bill either, unless you consider the word 'psycho' an example of "offensively coarse language". In the end, the officer apparently elected to use Ms. Stevenson's acceptance of her role in the incident, along with her stated regret for the situation, to make an example of her behavior in a way that would be the least problematic for her.

As much as I agree with the concept of an officer exercising discretion when faced with the various circumstances that he or she may encounter during the course of doing what is a very difficult job, I'm still having a hard time believing that the end justified the means here.

The officer's report describes the history surrounding the incident, but doesn't make reference to any ongoing dispute or multiple calls for service in the context of justifying the actions he took that day.

Under the reported circumstances, the dispute didn't seem to be so long-standing and acrimonious that it was completely intractable. The offended party also refused to talk with Ms. Stevenson, and that lack of willingness to communicate likely helped to fuel the problem.

I still think that Ms. Stevenson had every right to display her sign on the side of her truck. Like Professor Gates, she exercised her right to be a jerk. Unlike that other situation, an ongoing dispute had to be dealt with.

I know from personal experience how annoyingly stupid some of these disputes can be, and how the parties to them can be extraordinarily nasty at times. The officer must exhibit the wisdom of Solomon while endeavoring to maintain order.

While the ticket that Ms. Stevenson received seemed to be the path of least resistance toward resolving this particular dispute, it's little incursions like this into the slippery slope of the Bill of Rights that threaten to set dangerous precedents for the future.

Thanks to the Police Department for their response to my questions. May they receive sage direction and advice from the City Attorney in this area.

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