Washington Supreme Court reminder: name-calling isn't obstruction
While the rest of the nation is rightfully talking about today's Supreme Court ruling upholding key provisions of Obamacare, we took notice of an opinion issued by the Washington Supreme Court, State v. E.J.J., that reinforces that speech alone cannot be considered obstruction.
The case concerns a minor -- identified in court documents only by his initials -- from King County who was convicted of obstruction of justice. The conviction was upheld by the Court of Appeals, but reversed by the state Supreme Court, which decided the juvenile was only exercising his First Amendment right to freedom of speech.
As Justice Charles W. Johnson wrote in the majority opinion, police officers were called to the juvenile's home because his sister, also a juvenile, was intoxicated and out of control. Officers removed E.J.J. from the home as they tried to calm his sister, and "E.J.J. grew concerned when he he saw an officer reach for what he perceived to be a nightstick."
E.J.J. told officers not to use a nightstick on his sister.
Officers told E.J.J. to go back inside the home and close the front door. He went into the home but refused to shut the front door, wanting to watch officers with his sister. An officer closed the door multiple times, but E.J.J. continued to open it.
"At this point, E.J.J. was irate, yelling profanities and calling officers abusive names," Johnson wrote. "An officer warned E.J.J. that he could be arrested for obstruction. After E.J.J. continued to reopen the solid door, an officer put him under arrest for obstruction of a law enforcement officer. The entire interaction lasted 10 to 15 minutes."
The ACLU of Washington joined in challenging the case.
While E.J.J.'s words may have been "disrespectful, discourteous and annoying," Johnson wrote, "they are nonetheless constitutionally protected."
According to the state's obstruction statute, "A person is guilty of obstructing a law enforcement officer if the person willfully hinders, delays, or obstructs any law enforcement officer in the discharge of his or her official powers or duties." RCW 9A.76.020 (1).
"To save the obstruction statute from being unconstitutionally overbroad in a First Amendment setting, we have construed the statute narrowly. Our cases have consistently required conduct in order to establish obstruction of an officer," Johnson wrote. "In other words, a conviction for obstruction may not be based solely on an individual's speech because the speech itself is constitutionally protected. This review is also consistent with the approach established by the United States Supreme Court."
"Washington courts have long limited the application of obstruction statutes," Johnson wrote.
The significance of this case, then, Johnson said, was the finding that E.J.J. was convicted on the basis of his words alone.
The Court of Appeals had agreed that E.J.J.'s "physical approach to the officers" was enough to support the conviction. But the state's high court disagreed, saying the record included no evidence that E.J.J. actually touched an officer or his sister or made what could have been considered a threatening move toward an officer. The Court of Appeals also felt that E.J.J.'s presence escalated the situation.
"But E.J.J. 's mere presence at the scene cannot constitute conduct. E.J.J. had every right to stand on his own property, provided he did not physically interfere with police," Johnson wrote.
As for the trial court and Court of Appeals saying that E.J.J.'s refusal to obey officers' requests to leave was sufficient evidence to support an obstruction charge, Johnson wrote: "But this exchange is so intertwined with E.J.J. 's protected speech that we find insufficient evidence of E.J.J. 's conduct to support his conviction on this basis."
In his conclusion, Johnson wrote: "Where individuals exercise their constitutional rights to criticize how the police are handling a situation, they cannot be concerned about risking a criminal conviction for obstruction. Such a conviction is not permitted under the First Amendment. After a comprehensive review of the record and the trial court's findings, the decision of the trial court is reversed and charges are dismissed."