WV Town Official: We Don’t Allow the First Amendment Here

Jeff Gray, the “Godfather” of First Amendment auditors on Youtube, this week stopped in a couple different small towns here in West Virginia, publishing two videos of his encounters. Jeff is a great guy. If you’re not familiar with him, he has a sort of raggedy cardboard sign he holds up that says “God Bless the Homeless Vets.” Then he goes to some public place and just says, “God Bless the Homeless Vets.” He’s super polite and respectful. People see the sign and they react however they’re going to react. Thus we see protected First Amendment activity, occurring in a traditional public forum, and then we see how our government servants end up reacting to that activity.

Jeff stopped in Chesapeake, West Virginia, where he was nearly trespassed off public property by a police officer, ironically standing in front of a veteran’s memorial. But for the most part, that one had a positive ending and overall experience. I encourage you to go watch that video.

Then, Jeff went to Mount Hope, West Virginia. When Jeff told me he was coming through West Virginia, asking where he should go, I told him about Mount Hope, where I exposed the fact that they had this police officer who was essentially terrorizing motorists on a nearby four lane highway. So apparently that’s where he chose to go, and you can watch the full video on his channel about just what happened. But here’s a few snippets. As Jeff explains in his videos, panhandling is a constitutionally protected activity. Here’s Jeff’s Mount Hope video:

Since government employees apparently have a difficult time grasping this concept, let me explain panhandling, as it relates to the First Amendment.

First of all, a municipality cannot just prohibit panhandling within its jurisdiction. A town cannot just decide that the First Amendment doesn’t apply within its borders. Theoretically, though they would likely be inviting litigation, a town could impose certain reasonable time, place and manner restrictions on panhandling. They would have to establish some legitimate content-neutral public safety reason for doing so, and then provide available alternatives that are still adequate. Traditional public forums such as parks, sidewalks, etc., could not be completely foreclosed from the activity. 

Panhandling, or “begging” is protected by the First Amendment. The Supreme Court has held that the solicitation of “charitable contributions” is protected speech. Riley v. Nat’l Fed’n of the Blind of N.C., 487 U.S. 781, 789, 108 S.Ct. 2667, 101 L.Ed.2d 669 (1988). The Fourth Circuit has cited a sister circuit recognizing that, “We see little difference between those who solicit for organized charities and those who solicit for themselves in regard to the message conveyed. The former are communicating the needs of others while the latter are communicating their personal needs. Both solicit the charity of others. The distinction is not significant for First Amendment purposes.” Loper v. New York City Police Dep’t, 999 F.2d 699, 704 (2d Cir.1993); cited by Clatterbuck v. City of Charlottesville, 708 F.3d 549 (4th Cir. 2013) (“We agree that begging is communicative activity within the protection of the First Amendment.”).

The location of this activity is extremely relevant to its protections. Places such as parks, streets, and sidewalks fall into “the category of public property traditionally held open to the public for expressive activity.” Indeed, the Supreme Court has repeatedly referred to public streets and sidewalks as “the archetype of a traditional public forum.” (Snyder v. Phelps 2011). If a municipality seeks to regulate protected speech in a traditional public forum, they may impose reasonable content-neutral time, place, and manner restrictions that are narrowly tailored to serve a significant government interest and leave open ample alternative channels of communication. Ward v. Rock Against Racism, 491 U.S. 781, 791, 109 S.Ct. 2746, 105 L.Ed.2d 661 (1989). If the regulation is content-based however, the courts apply strict scrutiny. Under strict scrutiny, a regulation will be upheld “only if it is the least restrictive means available to further a compelling government interest.”

Thus step one is determining whether strict scrutiny applies, i.e., whether the regulation is content-based. If not, then intermediate scrutiny applies. The government’s restriction of speech is content-neutral if it is “ ‘justified without reference to the content … of the regulated speech.’ ” (Christian Legal Soc’y v. Martinez 2010). On the other hand, a restriction is content-based if it was “adopted … because of disagreement with the message [the speech] conveys.” “The government’s purpose is the controlling consideration.”

Content-neutral time, place, and manner regulations of speech in traditional public forums are subject to intermediate scrutiny—that is, the restrictions must be “narrowly tailored to serve a significant government interest and leave open ample alternative channels of communication.” A content-neutral regulation is narrowly tailored if it does not “burden substantially more speech than is necessary to further the government’s legitimate interests.” 

In Reynolds v. Middleton, 779 F.3d 222 (4th Cir. 2015), the 4th Circuit evaluated a Henrico County, Virginia ordinance that banned panhandling and several other forms of solicitation on all county highways. The Court established several evidentiary standards for the government to meet to satisfy intermediate scrutiny for regulating First Amendment activity such as panhandling. 

The Court requires the government to “present actual evidence supporting its assertion that a speech restriction does not burden substantially more speech than necessary.” Additionally, they have to prove that they actually tried other methods to address the government interest the regulation is designed to address, i.e., public safety concerns, flow of traffic, etc. If “available alternatives” are provided by the government, they need not be the speaker’s first or best choice, or provide the same audience or impact for the speech. But they must be adequate. If the speech is panhanding, the individual cannot be required to do so from a place where there is no target audience. If the speech is handing out leaflets, the speaker cannot be removed to only a spot where there is nobody to hand leaflets. 

In short, someone engaging in protected speech generally cannot be subjected to disparate treatment based on the content of their speech whatsoever, and need only be subjected to regulation for legitimate content-neutral reasons only so long as the regulations are minor logistical restrictions, leaving adequate opportunity to continue to express the protected speech.

Therefore, a municipality cannot just prohibit panhandling within its jurisdiction. A town cannot just decide that the First Amendment doesn’t apply within its borders. Theoretically, though they would likely be inviting litigation, a town could impose certain reasonable time, place and manner restrictions on panhandling. They would have to establish some legitimate content-neutral public safety reason for doing so, and then provide available alternatives that are still adequate. Traditional public forums such as parks, sidewalks, etc., could not be completely foreclosed from the activity. Certain key high-traffic areas or spots could possibly satisfy this test. Certain key time restrictions could possibly satisfy the test. But just an outright ban within a town of all panhandling? Absolutely not. That would violate the First Amendment just as much as a ban on all protected speech within city limits. 

Local Town Victimizes Innocent Motorists with Officer Perjury Pottymouth

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.