Court considers consequences of cussing at cops
By The Associated Press
BOISE, Idaho The Idaho Supreme Court is set to decide whether a Canyon County man's First Amendment rights were violated when he was arrested 4 1/2 years ago for swearing at a sheriff's detective.
This week, an attorney for Patrick Sheldon Suiter argued that his misdemeanor conviction for disturbing the peace should be overturned. Suiter used an obscene four-letter word in exasperation after getting no help from an investigator in a check-fraud complaint.
In a rare split decision, the three-member Court of Appeals upheld the conviction a year ago. Judge Darrel Perry, writing for the majority, contended that the provocative word as it was used "cannot be reasonably interpreted as the communication of information or opinion safeguarded by the Constitution."
But Judge Karen Lansing argued that although the common obscenity was insulting, it was not enough to provoke someone to violence or to significantly disrupt the activity or routine of others.
In her dissent, she warned that legitimizing arrest if "an individual uses the 'f-word' in an agitated conversation with a police officer or with any other person" creates a new circumstance for otherwise unjustified police arrests or searches.
Suiter had gone to the sheriff's office at the request of a friend to speak to a detective about a check-fraud case in which the friend was the victim. The detective said he could do nothing without some verification from the victim that Suiter was authorized to act on the victim's behalf.
Suiter became agitated as the conversation progressed, and when the detective asked him to calm down, Suiter raised his voice, said the obscenity and turned to leave. It was then that two other deputies arrested him.
Two other department employees and two citizens also heard the statement.
Representing himself during the trial, Suiter cited the 1971 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Cohen v. California. In that Vietnam War-era case, the high court dismissed a disturbing-the-peace conviction against Paul Cohen who had the message "F--- the Draft" on the back of a jacket he wore to the courthouse. The Supreme Court dismissed the conviction on First Amendment grounds, writing "one man's vulgarity is another's lyric."
The state Court of Appeals majority maintained that Suiter's case was different because he said the word aloud.
In 2000, the state Supreme Court upheld the disturbing-the-peace conviction of a Rathdrum woman who used the same word and another vulgarity in yelling at her 14-year-old daughter to stop talking while two other children were present.
Lansing maintained that a vulgar and insulting harangue directed at a teenager could not be used to justify arrest for a markedly milder comment made to an adult and a police officer as a "dismissive expression of disapproval of what the detective had been saying the vulgar equivalent of 'Go jump in a lake.'"
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