My client, Wendell Marcum, was arrested in his own front yard by deputies with the Brooke County Sherriff’s Department, for cursing during his interaction with them about a dog complaint. Yesterday we filed a federal civil rights lawsuit in the Wheeling Division of the Northern District of West Virginia, alleging multiple violations of the Fourth Amendment, as well as the First Amendment. Can the police perform a warrantless arrest of a man standing in his own front yard, for cursing and asking them to leave his property?
The law is clearly established that an individual has a First Amendment right to express profanity during an interaction with law enforcement. See Cohen v. California, 403 U.S. 15 (1972); see also Lewis v. City of New Orleans, 415 U.S. 130 (1974) (The U.S. Supreme Court reversed a conviction under a Louisiana statute that had provided that “It shall be unlawful and a breach of the peace for any person wantonly to curse or revile or to use obscene or opprobrious language toward or with reference to any member of the city police while in the actual performance of his duty.”).
The Supreme Court held in Payton v. New York, 445 U.S. 573 (1980) that, “absent exigent circumstances, an arrest in the home or curtilage area around the home must be accomplished by means of an arrest warrant….” In Rogers v. Pendleton, 249 F.3d 279 (4th Cir. 2001), the Fourth Circuit held that police officers must have probable cause plus either a warrant, or exigent circumstances, to perform a search or seizure within the curtilage of a person’s home, and that if asked to leave, officers are required to leave and seek a warrant.
Supreme Court jurisprudence extends heightened Fourth Amendment protections beyond just the interior of the home itself, but also to the “curtilage,” which is the “land immediately surrounding and associated with the home,” because the curtilage is “considered part of the home itself for Fourth Amendment purposes.” Oliver v. United States, 466 U.S. 170, 180 (1984). The Fourth Circuit has made clear that a warrantless search of curtilage is presumed to be unreasonable. Covey v. Assessor of Ohio Cnty., 777 F.3d 186 (4th Cir. 2015).
WV law creates the possibility for a criminal charge (disorderly conduct) due to a subject’s expression of profanity where: (1) The person is in a “public place” and where he (2) Disturbs the peace of others by “violent, profane, indecent or boisterous conduct or language; and (3) is requested to desist by a law enforcement officer and doesn’t. The West Virginia Supreme Court held in 2015 that the word “others” in W. Va. Code Section 61-6-1b (“disorderly conduct”) does not include law enforcement officers, but rather than some other third party must be present and actually offended by the subject’s conduct, in order to commit the criminal offense of “disorderly conduct.” Maston v. Wagner, 781 S.E.2d 936 (W. Va. 2015).
Here’s the filed complaint: