My email inbox blew up this weekend after a nationally-known First Amendment auditor on Youtube, Long Island Audit, posted a video of his interaction at a courthouse that is local to me, in Greenbrier County, West Virginia. Here’s the video:
People have been asking for my take on this video. Given the fact that I have an office a stone’s throw away from where this was filmed, I’ve been in that courthouse many times. In fact, I was first sworn in to practice in West Virginia circuit courts in that very courthouse.
As you see in the video, here are the relevant facts. The auditor enters the courthouse. You do have to go through security to get in. You don’t get ID’d, but you go through a metal detector, and mind you, they’re filming you as you walk in as well. He goes into the county clerk’s records room, which is where they keep the property deeds, surveys, etc., and was asked to leave. A courthouse security officer then approaches and says he’s not allowed to film there. Then he makes his way eventually to the county commission room, where he speaks with the actual elected sheriff and an attorney. He explains what he’s doing, but declines to give his full name. At that point he’s asked to leave. On the way down the stairs, the deputy escorting him gets in his face, and at one point asks where he’s from. Once outside, that deputy then says that he has decided to demand his ID, because he’s now undertaking an investigation of a suspicious person who was making people in the courthouse “uneasy.”
Let’s sort through the legal issues here….
Courthouses in West Virginia have some confusing legal authorities presiding over them. There’s really three separate governmental authority figures: the court, the sheriff, and the county commission. There is one West Virginia Supreme Court case discussing this, which is State ex rel. Farley v. Spaulding (WV 1998). It notes that Article 8, Section 6 of the WV Constitution provides that, subject to the approval of the State Supreme Court, the local circuit court has the “authority and power” to establish local rules to govern that particular court, including administratively.
However, at the same time, Article 9, Section 11 of the WV Constitution provides that the local county commission possesses the police powers in their county, including at courthouses. Additionally, State Code (WV Code 7-3-2) mades that the county commission is responsible for providing a “suitable courthouse” at their expense, also possessing the authority and obligation to provide for courthouse security via the local elected sheriff.
Thus, the county sheriff is responsible for courthouse security. However, the court is ultimately in control of its courtrooms, generally speaking.
West Virginia State Trial Court Rule 8 provides that permission of the court is required “in and around the courtrooms” during judicial proceedings, which is granted at the discretion of the presiding judge. Trial Court Rule 8.05 provides that coverage of nonjudicial meetings “in the courtrooms” is also subject to permission, with the “concurrence of the sponsoring group.”
As for the ID laws in West Virginia, there is no state law requiring pedestrians to produce their ID. If there were, generally speaking, it would constitute a violation of the Fourth Amendment where reasonable suspicion was absent. The Fourth Circuit has previously denounced police officers seizing individuals based on non-particularized, general assumptions about suspects, which may be based on irrational, speculative, or otherwise improper fears, biases or falsehoods. (US v. Black 4th Cir. 2013).
Even with reasonable suspicion, the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals has held that in a non-traffic investigative detention, that refusal to identify oneself to a law enforcement officer does not, standing alone form the basis for a charge of obstructing a law enforcement officer. (State v. Snrsky WV 2003). “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 (WV 2003).
On the charge of allegedly obstructing an officer, in violation of WV Code § 61-5-17(a), 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 4th Circuit recently held that in West Virginia, “lawful conduct is not sufficient to establish the statutory offense” of obstruction. They noted that 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.” (Hupp v. State Trooper Seth Cook 4th Cir. 2019).
Regarding the right to record, the federal district court in the very jurisdiction where this occurred held on July 13 of this month that there is a clearly established First Amendment right for a citizen record police, noting that federal circuits around the country have found a protected First Amendment right to film matters of public interest, including recording police officers conducting official duties in public. (Gibson v. Goldston SDWV 2022).
Ultimately, a citizen does have a First Amendment right to record their in-person public records request at a county courthouse, so long as they are otherwise engaging in lawful conduct. Doing so cannot be used to detain and forcibly ID the individual based on subjective irrational fears of law enforcement who decide to then conduct an “investigation” of the individual as a “suspicious” person.
A forcible detainment and ID of the individual would be a Fourth Amendment seizure that would be unreasonable, and therefore unlawful.
Moreover, there can be little question that a First Amendment auditor in the process of filming his interactions with public officials is engaging in First Amendment protected activity. To prohibit him from continuing to do so, unless he provides identification, is interference with his First Amendment rights. Subsequently demanding his identification, under threat of arrest for obstruction, as a result of his protected activity is very likely First Amendment retaliation.