Monday, August 10, 2009

Disorderly Conduct in Grand Junction

'Psycho’ sign nets ticket

A northeast Grand Junction woman decided one word would speak louder than violent actions Thursday when she parked her car in front of a neighbor’s house with “Psycho” written in parchment paper on the side of her vehicle.

Grand Junction police said they cited Wini Stevenson, 53, for disorderly conduct after she parked her car in front of a neighbor’s home to protest the neighbor complaining to their homeowner’s association about a block party.

- Police Blotter, Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, August 1, 2009

A week ago, while working on a previous post about a similar topic, this blurb from the newspaper jumped out at me. Something didn't seem right; I wondered what extenuating circumstances may have existed to warrant a criminal citation for what would normally be just an ill-advised, rude, and largely pointless, but not illegal gesture.

Given the timeliness of these questions to what was a national point of discussion, I decided to obtain a copy of the police report for the incident, which in most cases is permitted under the Colorado Open Records Act. The report accurately detailed the summary in the newspaper account.

The officer wrote that he "issued Stevenson a municipal summons for disorderly conduct for directing derogatory language" at her neighbor. The officer added in his narrative, "Stevenson's attitude continued to be positive and truthful. She answered each question I asked her and was totally cooperative throughout my entire contact with her."

It sounds like Ms. Stevenson didn't give the officer a hard time at all. I really started wondering about how a sign on a car, or in a window, or being carried on a public sidewalk, without any associated belligerent behavior on the part of anyone, could be a crime.

If I were to walk in front of a local used car lot with a sign that says "XYZ AUTO SELLS LEMONS", this could be considered "derogatory language" by the business owner, and he could seek relief in the civil courts if he saw fit. But is it a criminal act?

Here is a picture of the few pro-health care reform citizens who showed up at Saturday's
rally against the current health care proposal being considered in Washington.

What if one of these signs had just the word "PSYCHO" on it? Would that be considered "derogatory language"? Would the officer in the picture have probable cause to cite that person for Disorderly Conduct?

What is the difference between this lawful expression of free speech rights, and what happened above?

I posed this question last Tuesday to both the Colorado Chapter of the ACLU and to Kate Porras, Public Information Coordinator for the Grand Junction Police Department.

Perhaps it would be good to review what the applicable laws actually say about Disorderly Conduct.

Colorado Revised Statutes, Section 18-9-106 (in part):
(1) A person commits disorderly conduct if he or she intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly:

(a) Makes a coarse and obviously offensive utterance, gesture, or display in a public place and the utterance, gesture, or display tends to incite an immediate breach of the peace;
Grand Junction City Code, Section 24-4 (in part):
A person commits disorderly conduct if he knowingly:

(1) Addresses abusive language or threats to any person present which creates a clear and present danger of violence.
I think that if a reasonable person looks at what the law says, and how it relates to the account at the top of this post, there appears to be a disconnect. Mark Silverstein, the ACLU Of Colorado's Legal Director, replied to my question with the following:
As described in the Sentinel, the actions of the Grand Junction woman are not disorderly conduct nor any other crime; she engaged in free speech that is protected by the Constitution. There is a narrow exception to the First Amendment for so-called "fighting words," but the display of a sign under the circumstances described here does not qualify as "fighting words."
I have yet to receive a reply from Ms. Porras. She did say that she would get back to me, and it's understandable that her workload may have prevented a more expedient response. The announcement of a new interim Police Chief, activities surrounding National Night Out, and preparations for a Presidential visit were likely all on her calendar last week, along with the usual incident stuff. I'll post an update with her reply when I receive it.

I felt it necessary to complete this post without her contribution, because there are timely issues relating to the use and enforcement of laws like this one that need to be discussed.

First and foremost, we the people need to remember that the rights conveyed by the Constitution apply to all citizens, regardless of race, cultural or political background, or perceived socio-economic status. I say "perceived" because of this story from last week.

Second, when any attempt is made to use vague statutes like Disorderly Conduct to quell or restrict appropriate free speech, it needs to be called out for what it is. The recent attempt to criminalize solicitation and panhandling in Grand Junction is one example.

Another example was in a local response to the tumult that has erupted at various congressional town meetings across the country, orchestrated by opponents of the health care reform package. Grand Junction blogger and attorney Bill Hugenberg offered the following in a recent blog post:
Under the law, “(1) A person commits disorderly conduct if he or she intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly: . . . (c) Makes unreasonable noise in a public place . . .” In People v Fitzgerald, 194 Colo. 415, 573 P.2d 100 (1978), the Colorado Supreme Court interpreted the foregoing language as follows: Section 18-9-106(1)(c) cannot, consistent with First Amendment rights, be construed to prohibit automatically all speech which might disturb people even when the speaker had that intent. . . . However, the state may act to prohibit, consistent with the First Amendment, the use of the human voice to disturb others when there is no substantial effort to communicate or when the seeming communication is used as a guise to accomplish disruption (emphasis added).
I'm not in favor of law enforcement trying to wade through a morass like this; their job is hard enough already. As I see it, if those disrupting a meeting won't cooperate, then they should be asked to leave. If they won't, then trespass them.

As if we haven't seen enough of disorderly conduct issues in recent weeks, we in Grand Junction get to explore these limits a little more as part of what constitutes Critical Mass for the civil liberties crowd; a visit from the President of the United States. Even this pales in comparison to what some of my friends in Pittsburgh are busy preparing for; a G-20 Summit.

Recent local history surrounding these types of visits has seen local law enforcement exercising admirable restraint in the vast majority of circumstances, acting only when obviously necessary. Let's hope that this practice translates to everyday operations, with appropriate action where needed, and respect for established rights being the clearly established norm.

Have a great week ahead.

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