This footage shows a woman in Michigan attempting to visit her mother in a nursing home. The facility decides to trespass her from the property and call law enforcement. Once the police arrive, she voluntary leaves – or rather attempts to leave. Then this happens…. Once again, the issue arises: can the police detain and forcibly ID a citizen who is in the process of voluntarily leaving a private business following a trespassing complaint?
Here’s a new West Virginia video I received out of Morgan County, West Virginia, showing an interaction between some young guys and multiple sheriff’s deputies outside a bar. What it shows is troubling, but not surprising: police officers who can’t control their temper when interacting with someone who is running their mouth – or as the courts call it, “mere words.” Here in the Fourth Circuit, police cannot use violent physical force in response to someone’s “mere words,” – even if they perceive them as obstruction or threats. See United States v. Cobb, 905 F.2d 784, 789 (4th Cir. 1990).
This clip started making the rounds on Tik Tok and now it just popped up on the news here in West Virginia that the agency has ordered an independent investigation into the footage by an outside agency:
Morgan County Sheriff KC Bohrer says, “I have requested an investigation into the matter by an independent agency to be totally transparent and through.”
He says the issue will be ” thoroughly and impartially investigated” and asked for patience during the investigation. “As in any investigation it takes time to gather all the facts.”
This happened on December 3, 2022. The guy they’re talking to had been assaulted in a bar Berkeley Springs, West Virginia. His friend called police. After they arrived, it became clear that they didn’t intend to help. So one of the men began to film.
Apparently, after the video turns off, both men were placed in the rear of a police car for a while. Shortly afterwards they were released with no charges. The one guy was finally able to go to the hospital and receive medical treatment.
There does appear to me to be some constitutional violations in there. I really need to see the police report and the 911 communications to gather all the facts before giving a more informed opinion. In fact, I already submitted a FOIA request. Not surprisingly, given that an investigation was ordered, they’ve already denied my request:
Hopefully this isn’t one of those situations where an investigation is ordered and then… nothing is ever released. There seems to be an awful lot of those in West Virginia.
October 9, 2020, Sterling Police Officer Paul McDaniel pulled Christian Weitzel from his apartment and threw him to the ground. With the assistance of Sterling Police Officer Matt Williams and Logan County Sheriff’s Deputy Alton McGuffin, the three officers hogtied Mr. Weitzel with his wrists handcuffed behind his back, his ankles strapped together, and his ankles and wrists tied together behind his back. They drug him to a police cruiser, threw him into the rear seat, and left him in that position until he was finally released at the jail.
There was a verbal argument between Mr. Weitzel and his wife, Brittany Weitzel. Mr. Weitzel was not arrested or charged with any criminal offenses related to a domestic dispute. The officers were called to the scene following a call from a neighbor of a possible domestic dispute due to hearing loud voices. After the officers arrived at the apartment, they could not hear anyone yelling inside the apartment. They did not observer any altercation taking place, or any crimes being committed.
Officer McDaniel asked Brittany what was going on and she stated, “just an argument.” She did not appear to have any injuries. She did not request assistance from the officers. She had not called them to the scene. Mr. Weitzel then walked up to the doorway from inside the apartment. He did not step outside the threshold of the apartment door. He asked Officer McDaniel, “what’s up man,” in a calm nonthreatening, and nonaggressive manner.
Officer McDaniel asked Mr. Weitzel to “come here and talk to me man.” Mr. Weitzel, in a calm, nonthreatening and nonaggressive manner, stated, “I’m cool,” indicating that he wanted to stay inside the doorway of his apartment. He made no sudden moves. He did not threaten the officers in any way. Mr. Weitzel did not appear to be armed. Nor did the officers have any information or indication that Mr. Weitzel was armed. Mr. Weitzel was ultimately hogtied for approximately 16 minutes. Mr. Weitzel was charged with disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, and obstructing. All the charges were subsequently dismissed by Logan County Court Judge Ray Ann Brammer.
A lawsuit was filed just a few days ago in state court in Colorado over these allegations. I’ll post it up to the blog, link in the description. As for the facts, based on the body cam footage and the facts presented in media reports and the civil lawsuit, constitutional rights were violated. Why?Although the officers were called to the scene of a reported domestic dispute, they ended up acting on a very small amount of information that, even if true, does not justify an arrest of the homeowner, much less a use of force.
A neighbor called 911, reporting a suspected verbal argument. There was apparently no allegation of a crime being committed, or that anyone’s physical safety was in jeopardy. When officers arrived at the scene, they saw no crime being committed. They located and observed both spouses at the residence. Neither appeared to be in distress, or requested their assistance. Without Mrs. Weitzel requesting their assistance, under these circumstances, the officers had no justification for pulling Mr. Weitzel out of his house. That’s a Fourth Amendment violation right there. But even assuming they acted properly up to that point, then we have the arrestee being hogtied on the ground.
Colorado is the 10th federal circuit. A quick search of the case law shows that police officers hogtying anyone is a terrible idea under almost any fact pattern. It could theoretically be reasonable under some circumstances, but I really don’t know what that would be. It certainly would not be reasonable under this fact pattern, where the arrestee had not committed any crime at all, much less a severe one. Watching the body cam footage shows that the arrestee is not attempting to harm the officers. He poses no threat to them.
Rather, it appears that the officers hogtied the man in retaliation for not immediately respecting their authority by stepping out of his house when they asked him to do so – despite having no legal justification for the demand. This appears to be one of those common situations where police are going to teach a lesson about respecting the police. It’s clearly not about the safety of anyone on the scene, including the arrestee.
In Cruz, Wyoming police officers responded to a complaint of a naked man running on the exterior landing of an apartment building. When the officers arrived, Mr. Cruz, the man on the landing, was jumping up and down and kicking his legs in the air. When he descended from the landing, the officers wrestled him to the ground and handcuffed him. They hogtied him. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Cruz’s face blanched. He was rushed to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead on arrival. Expert reports indicated that Mr. Cruz’s death resulted from positional asphyxiation. Citing Cruz, the 2008 Weigel opinion denied those officers qualified immunity for similar conduct, issuing a clear warning to law enforcement to think twice about hogtying arrestees. As a result of this, the Wyoming State Police, as I understand it, prohibited the practice. Back in the 90’s, the DOJ also warned against the cruel practice.
There are a lot of other hogtying cases out there. But I gave you the 10th Circuit law, as that is applicable for this particular jurisdiction.
Today’s video is about Matthew Souter, who owns a farmhouse in The Plains, Virginia. He ended up being unlawfully arrested and tased by police officers in his front yard. Back in November of 2018. He rented a bedroom and bathroom in his home to Melissa Johnson. Following a dispute about her cat and an electric hotplate, she went to a local court and obtained an ex parte Emergency Protective Order (“EPO”) against Mr. Souter, which restricted him from “acts of violence, force, or threat of criminal offenses resulting in injury to person or property” of Johnson.
The next day, November 10, 2018, Johnson called the Fauquier County Sheriff’s Office and reported that Plaintiff had violated the EPO by terminating the electric and water service to her bedroom and bathroom. She spoke with a deputy who took her complaint and classified it as a “civil matter.” Not satisfied with that, she called again later the same day. This time she spoke with a different deputy, who was dangerously incompetent. He ended up applying for an arrest warrant against Mr. Souter, alleging a violation of the EPO. There in fact was no violation – nor any reason for him to believe that Mr. Souter had committed any crime. But, he obtained an arrest warrant.
This deputy and his supervisor then traveled to Mr. Souter’s home with an arrest warrant. The deputies seized Mr. Souter. I spoke with Mr. Souter on the phone and he denies resisting this arrest. However, in a subsequent ruling, the federal court wrote that it was undisputed that he resisted arrest. This is what the Court found, specifically: “Plaintiff resisted arrest and did not permit the officers to handcuff him. The officers then wrestled the Plaintiff to the ground, while Plaintiff continued to resist the officers. McCauley then used a taser to subdue the Plaintiff. After Plaintiff was tased, the officers were able to handcuff the Plaintiff.” Mr. Souter was tased multiple times and was bleeding. He was taken to a local hospital emergency room.
The officers subsequently charged Souter with the underlying EPO violation, as well as attempted fleeing from a law enforcement officer. The EPO charge ended up being dismissed by the prosecutor, and he was found not guilty of the fleeing charge following the criminal trial.
Then Souter filed a federal section 1983 civil lawsuit. Here’s the complaint his lawyer filed:
Fast forward in the litigation, and something pretty unusual ended up happening. The federal judge – Judge Ellis – in the Eastern District of Virginia, not only denied qualified immunity to the officers, but granted summary judgment in favor of the Plaintiff. That means that the Court found that Mr. Souter’s civil rights were violated, as a matter of law, and that the only issue for the jury to decide is the amount of money damages to be awarded.
Why did the officers lose qualified immunity, as well as the opportunity to even oppose liability in front of the jury? In short, because they acted such utter incompetence. The Fourth Amendment protects against citizens being unlawfully arrested by law enforcement. An unlawful arrest is one that occurs in the absence of probable cause. Police officers can be held civilly liable for a false arrest “if it would have been clear to reasonable officers in their position that they lacked probable cause to arrest” Plaintiff for violating the cited law. Graham v. Gagnon (4th Cir. 2016).
The officers aren’t required to be actually correct in their probable cause determination, but rather reasonable in their probable cause determination. Here’s the Court’s full opinion:
In this case, all the officers knew is the allegation that the Plaintiff had cut off Johnson’s water and electric service. There was no reasonable basis for them to conclude that the Plaintiff had engaged in any act of violence, force, or threat, against Johnson. Thus, if they believed Plaintiff had done any of those acts, such a belief would have been clearly erroneous and unreasonable.
The arrest warrant the officers obtained alleged violation of a domestic violence type of protective order, which did not exist in this case. No such domestic violence type of protective order had been issued against the Plaintiff, as would be obvious on the face of the actual EPO served on the Plaintiff. Moreover, even if Plaintiff had been served with a domestic violence protective order, cutting off water and electric do not constitute acts of violence, as defined in the EPO. Therefore, Plaintiff’s conduct could not have led a reasonable law enforcement officer to conclude that probable cause existed or that his arrest was proper. Thus they violated his constitutional rights when they unlawfully arrested him (and used force to effectuate that arrest) in the absence of probable cause.
The illegality of Plaintiff’s arrest taints the defendant officers’ subsequent actions and renders them liable for Plaintiff’s excessive force claims. Under federal law, “the Fourth Amendment prohibition on unreasonable seizures bars police officers from using excessive force to seize a free citizen.” Jones v. Buchanan (4th Cir. 2003).
Let’s fast forward to the trial results. The jury ended up awarding a total of $50,000.00 in compensatory damages to Mr. Souter. Here’s the jury verdict form:
In my phone conversation with Mr. Souter, he was actually very unhappy with the verdict, both in the amount of $50,000.00, as well as the lack of a punitive damages award. He took issue with how the presentation of the damages claim was presented to the jury at trial.
For many reasons, people many times have unrealistic expectations on the value of damages in civil rights cases. At the end of the day, a jury decides these things. This can vary wildly depending on a number of factors, including the personalities of the parties, as well as the jurors themselves. I wasn’t at this trial, so I really have no idea what dynamics were present in the courtroom. But this illustrates one of the difficult parts of the job of a civil rights lawyer. Ultimately you have to convince a jury to award money damages. How do you do that? It can be very difficult, and sometimes emotion is all you have, assuming you can instill it in the hearts of the jurors.
There’s a form instruction in section 1983 cases that says something to the effect of, if you find that the plaintiff’s civil rights were violated, you must at least award $1.00, even if you find that the plaintiff suffered no actual damages. The value of constitutional injuries can vary wildly based on who is on the jury. But there’s also a federal law, 42 U.S.C. Section 1988, which provides for an award of reasonable attorney fees following a finding of liability. That means that even if a jury awards One Dollar, there could potentially be an attorney fee award of six figures.
What you’re about to see here is outrageous body cam footage that has never before been seen by anyone, other than law enforcement. It shows what happened to my clients, Jason Tartt, the property owner and landlord, as well as Donnie and Ventriss Hairston, his innocent and mistreated tenants, on August 7, 2020, when they were subjected to civil rights violations by two deputies with the McDowell County Sheriff’s Office, Dalton Martin and Jordan Horn.
Today we filed a federal civil rights lawsuit, which is posted below. But you can watch the footage for yourself. Before the body cams were turned on, what you need to know is that there was a complaint received that an abandoned church, in an overgrown parcel of land not owned by any of these individuals, apparently had four marijuana plants growing there, among the thick brush. Crime of the century, right? The perpetrators must be one of the elderly African American residents nearby, of course. Instead of treating them as human beings, let’s accuse them first thing, then mistreat, harass, and retaliate against, them if they dare to get uppity, or not know their place.
Donnie and Ventriss Hairston were sitting on the front porch of their rural home, when two deputies approached and began to harass and intimidate them. Their landlord, who lives next door, joined them shortly afterwards and began to ask questions. When they asserted their opinions and rights, retaliation ensued. The landlord, Jason Tartt, was seized and arrested. The Hairstons were shoved into their home against their will. This is never before seen footage, outside of law enforcement of course. Take a look and form your own opinion about what happened.
On January 31, 2022, Brian Beckett was traveling home from work, driving Northbound on WV Route 19 in Mount Hope, West Virginia. It was around 5:45 p.m. He ended up getting pulled over for speeding by Mount Hope Police Department officer Aaron Shrewsbury. Instead of getting a speeding ticket, or even a warning, Mr. Beckett ended up being pulled out of his car and arrested for obstructing an officer, disorderly conduct, speeding, and reckless driving.
Mr. Beckett was driving home from an industrial work site in a nearby county. He’s not a criminal – not out selling drugs or committing crimes – just trying to drive down the road. He had a dash camera recording, which appears to show that he was driving safely. It doesn’t indicate his speed, but that’s not what this video is about. Officer Shrewsbury would subsequently swear under oath in his criminal complaint affidavit, seeking court authorization for Mr. Beckett’s arrest, that not only did he radar Mr. Beckett speeding, but that “as I was catching up to the vehicle, I noticed the vehicle weaving through traffic recklessly” but that “I was able to pull behind the vehicle and get it stopped….” Take a look at the dash cam footage from Mr. Beckett’s car just prior to the traffic stop, and see if that statement appears to you to be true.
Mr. Beckett used his personal cell phone to record his interaction with Officer Shrewsbury. Despite the officer stopping the video and attempting to delete the recording from Mr. Beckett’s phone, the officer couldn’t access it. During arrest processing, the officer was placing the phone in front of Mr. Beckett’s face in order to attempt to unlock the phone using facial recognition, to no avail. So he was unable to delete this footage, which shows the encounter, what led to Mr. Beckett’s arrest, and the fact that Officer Shrewsbury stopped the recording.
So Officer Shrewsbury immediately arrested Mr. Beckett for obstruction for not rolling his window down all the way. He never bothered to ask Mr. Beckett for his license, registration, proof of insurance, or even his name. He just demanded that the window be rolled down all the way, not providing a reason – just because he demanded it. Then immediately removed him from the car and arrested him. The officer never even identified himself, the reason he pulled him over, or explained any legitimate reason he required the window rolled down.
In the subsequent criminal complaint, no allegation was made or charged that it is illegal in West Virginia to not roll one’s window down completely during a traffic stop. He was merely charged with obstruction. Under West Virginia’s obstruction statute, the plain language of the statute establishes that a person is guilty of obstruction when he, “by threats, menaces, acts or otherwise forcibly or illegally hinders or obstructs or attempts to hinder or obstruct a law-enforcement officer, probation officer or parole officer acting in his or her official capacity.” The Fourth Circuit recently examined the statute:
As West Virginia’s high court has “succinct[ly]” explained, to secure a conviction under section 61-5-17(a), the State must show “forcible or illegal conduct that interferes with a police officer’s discharge of official duties.” State v. Davis, 229 W.Va. 695, 735 S.E.2d 570, 573 (2012) (quoting State v. Carney, 222 W.Va. 152, 663 S.E.2d 606, 611 (2008) ). Because conduct can obstruct an officer if it is either forcible or illegal, a person may be guilty of obstruction “whether or not force be actually present.” Johnson , 59 S.E.2d at 487. However, where “force is not involved to effect an obstruction,” the resulting obstruction itself is insufficient to establish the illegality required by section 61-5-17. Carney , 663 S.E.2d at 611. That is, when force is not used, obstruction lies only where an illegal act is performed. This is because “lawful conduct is not sufficient to establish the statutory offense.” Id.
Of particular relevance to our inquiry here, West Virginia courts have held that “when done in an orderly manner, merely questioning or remonstrating with an officer while he or she is performing his or her duty, does not ordinarily constitute the offense of obstructing an officer.” State v. Srnsky, 213 W.Va. 412, 582 S.E.2d 859, 867 (2003) (quoting State ex rel. Wilmoth v. Gustke, 179 W.Va. 771, 373 S.E.2d 484, 486 (W. Va. 1988)).
Hupp v. State Trooper Seth Cook, 931 F.3d 307 (4th Cir. 2019).
At no point did Mr. Beckett refuse to participate in the traffic stop being conducted by Officer Shrewsbury. He rolled the window down partially. He was clearly visible through the non-tinted glass, his hands were visible and non-threatening; he hadn’t refused to provide his license, registration and proof of insurance. He hadn’t refused to identify himself, or to do any act he was required by law to perform. Moreover, I’m aware of no State law, nor did Officer Shrewsbury identify one in the charging documents, requiring motorists who are subjected to traffic stops in West Virginia to roll their windows completely down as a matter of routine.
It appears that this arrest occurred in the absence of probable cause, and therefore in violation of the Fourth Amendment. But it didn’t stop there.
Officer Shrewsbury also alleged that, after pulling Mr. Beckett from the vehicle and placing him in handcuffs, while walking Mr. Beckett to the police cruiser, that Mr. Beckett remarked that “this was bullshit.” Officer Shrewsbury wrote in his criminal complaint affidavit that, “I then informed Mr. Beckett to stop cussing and placed him inside my vehicle.”
Under West Virginia’s disorderly conduct statute, no probable cause could exist for a warrantless arrest for disorderly conduct by virtue of saying, “this was bullshit.” First of all, if that were possible, such would be a First Amendment violation, as the West Virginia Supreme Court warned law enforcement back ini 1988:
“The freedom of individuals verbally to oppose or challenge police action without thereby risking arrest is one of the principal characteristics by which we distinguish a free nation from a police state.”
State ex rel. Wilmoth v. Gustke, 179 W.Va. 771, 773-74 373 S.E.2d 484, 486-87 (1988).
First Amendment issues aside, merely using bad language in the presence of a supposedly-sensitive police officer, cannot violate West Virginia’s disorderly conduct statute. Not that I expect law enforcement to actually learn the law, but there is a 2015 West Virginia Supreme Court case directly on point. In Maston v. Wagner, 781 S.E.2d 936 (W. Va. 2015), the West Virginia Supreme Court held specifically that the WV disorderly conduct statute, while potentially criminalizing profane language under some circumstances, in public and in front of other people who complain, does not criminalize profane language used by a citizen during their interaction with law enforcement.
If that’s not enough, the U.S. Supreme Court has sent a clear message through its rulings, such as in Cohen v. California (1971) and Lewis v. City of New Orleans (1974) that free speech, however offensive or controversial to sensitive virgin-eared police officers, is afforded a high level of protection.
Officer Shrewsbury didn’t even allege in his criminal complaint affidavit that a third party had overheard Mr. Beckett’s alleged use of the word bullshit, or complained about it. Nevertheless, the local magistrate signed off on it, approving it as probable cause under West Virginia law. Which is a disgrace, given the fact that the State Supreme Court clearly warned otherwise about seven years earlier.
Also a disgrace to our Constitution, is the fact that these charges are still pending against Mr. Beckett. The individual police officers like this you see in these videos never do it alone. Behind the scenes are politicians and prosecutors.
In fact, the politicians and prosecutors behind the scenes of this Officer Aaron Shrewsbury should explain why this police officer is allowed to victimize citizens in the first place, given the fact that he had previously lost his certification to be a police officer in West Virginia while working at the Fayette County Sheriff’s Office for “Dishonesty – willful falsification of information.” No, unfortunately I’m not making that up. That’s right – the same police officer who filed false and incorrect charges against Mr. Beckett, has somehow in the past managed to screw up his job so badly that he lost his certification to be a police officer, for lying as a police officer. Truly unbelievable. But also not unbelievable.
Also not surprisingly, other complaints have surfaced about Officer Shrewbury. This one may sound familiar. August 15, 2021, a few months before Mr. Beckett’s incident, a 20 year old kid from Ohio was driving through this same area, and ends up getting arrested by Officer Shrewsbury for misdemeanor possession of marijuana. And listen to this, the kid says, according to Shrewsbury’s report, “this is fucking bullshit.” That incident ended in Officer Shrewsbury punching that kid in the face, and then placing him handcuffed, in the back of a police cruiser, with a blood covered face and broken jaw, which required surgery to fix.
The kid was finally able to get help from another police officer at the scene. He said hey, I need help. When asked why he needed help, the kid said, “my tooth is in my lap.” The officer then looked at him and saw a large amount of blood coming from his face and on his shirt. That officer then promptly took the kid to the hospital, which began a long period of medical treatment to fix the damage caused by Officer Shrewsbury.
More about this incident shortly, but the question begs, why do the politicians and prosecutors turn this man loose on the public. You can see from this video the way in which he appears to hold regular citizens in contempt, treating them like garbage to be discarded.
If you have any information about Officer Shrewsbury, who as far as I know is still out there interacting with the public, please reach out.
An Alabama pastor, who was helping a neighbor by watering her roses, was confronted by police after another (Karen) neighbor reported a suspicious person. After police arrived, they demanded ID from the pastor, as well as full submission to their authority. The pastor stood up for his rights and refused to be harassed. So, they arrested him for obstruction, of course, i.e., contempt of cop. Was he required to provide ID? What is reasonable suspicion?
First, was it a “consensual encounter,” or was it a seizure under the Fourth Amendment?
As a general matter, police officers are free to approach and question individuals without necessarily effecting a seizure. Rather, a person is seized within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment “[o]nly when the officer, by means of physical force or show of authority, has in some way restrained the liberty of a citizen.” Id. (quoting Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 19 n.16 (1968)). Such a seizure can be said to occur when, after considering the totality of the circumstances, the Court concludes that “a reasonable person would have believed that he was not free to leave.” Id. (quoting United States v. Gray, 883 F.2d 320, 322 (4th Cir. 1989)). Similarly, when police approach a person at a location that they do not necessarily wish to leave, the appropriate question is whether that person would feel free to “terminate the encounter.” See Florida v. Bostick, 501 U.S. 429, 436 (1991). “[T]he free-to-leave standard is an objective test, not a subjective one.” United States v. Analla, 975 F.2d 119, 124 (4th Cir. 1992).5… (United States v. Nestor (N.D. W.Va. 2018)).
If a seizure occurred, i.e., investigatory detention, there must have been reasonable suspicion. Reasonable suspicion is a “commonsense, nontechnical” standard that relies on the judgment of experienced law enforcement officers, “not legal technicians.” See Ornelas v. United States, 517 U.S. 690, 695, 116 S.Ct. 1657, 134 L.Ed.2d 911 (1996) (internal quotation marks omitted). To support a finding of reasonable suspicion, we require the detaining officer “to either articulate why a particular behavior is suspicious or logically demonstrate, given the surrounding circumstances, that the behavior is likely to be indicative of some more sinister activity than may appear at first glance.” See United States v. Foster, 634 F.3d 243, 248 (4th Cir.2011). (United States v. Williams, 808 F.3d 238 (4th Cir. 2015)).
– Must be PARTICULARIZED to the individual – not categorical or generalized
– SHOULD be based on suspicion of ILLEGAL CONDUCT (but some cases hold that an amalgamation of legal conduct can equal suspicion of criminal conduct under some circumstances.
For an ensuing arrest to be justified, assuming reasonable suspicion existed, probable cause must exist. Probable cause exists when the “facts and circumstances within the officer’s knowledge . . . are sufficient to warrant a prudent person, or one of reasonable caution, in believing, in the circumstances shown, that the suspect has committed, is com- mitting, or is about to commit an offense.” – Michigan v. DeFillippo (SCOTUS 1979).
Whether Alabama has a state law requiring an ID to be produced under the circumstances, is of course going to be based on Alabama law, which is also probably going to require more information about what they officers knew, and when they knew it. But as I explain in the video, this seems like your everyday, “respect muh authoritah” situation. It was most likely clear that the pastor wasn’t a burglar. But his reaction to the police resulted in them feeling the need to protect and serve him, despite the fact that no crime had been committed (except of course an alleged process crime).
Edgar Orea brought me this footage. He’s a street preacher who was arrested in Bluefield, West Virginia for the content of his protected First Amendment speech. Edgar and his wife moved to Bluefield in order to serve the people of nearby McDowell County, West Virginia, which is the poorest county in the entire nation. But from the very beginning, they were harassed by the Bluefield Police Department, as you’ll see in the video. The police objected to the content of their message. In this particular incident, they actually arrested Mr. Orea and took him to jail based on the content of his anti-abortion sign, which showed an aborted fetus.
There was a similar case litigated in Kentucky: World Wide Street Preachers’ v. City of Owensboro, 342 F.Supp.2d 634 (W.D. Ky. 2004). In that case, another street preacher was arrested in a public park for showing a large sign with a similar photograph of an aborted fetus. The police claimed that this was causing public alarm and was likely to cause a confrontation. So they cited the individual, but otherwise didn’t arrest him or interfere with his other activities. The Court held:
A function of free speech under our system of government is to invite dispute. It may indeed best serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger. Speech is often provocative and challenging. It may strike at prejudices and preconceptions and have profound unsettling effects as it presses for acceptance of an idea. Terminiello v. Chicago, 337 U.S. 1, 4, 69 S.Ct. 894, 93 L.Ed. 1131 (1949)….
In light of Supreme Court precedent, the Court cannot find that the Plaintiffs’ sign, no matter how gruesome or how objectionable it may be, constitutes “fighting words.” The Plaintiffs’ speech, whether one agrees with it or not, was certainly not of “slight social value.” Rather, their speech was a powerful, albeit graphic commentary on a societal debate that divides many Americans. Furthermore, their speech was not directed at any particular person. Their speech commented on a highly significant social issue and was calculated to challenge people, to unsettle them, and even to anger them, but not to insult them. Such social commentary is not only protected under Supreme Court precedent but also is highly valued in the marketplace of ideas in our free society.
Here, the Bluefield Police Department did much more than issue a citation, but rather placed Mr. Orea in handcuffs and carted him off for incarceration. Then they refused to return his signs, except for one. They charged him with two criminal misdemeanors: disorderly conduct and obstruction, two favorites of law enforcement officers for arresting people who have committed no crime. Fortunately, the charges were dismissed by the Court following a motion to dismiss based on the First Amendment.