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Idaho high court reverses cop-cusser's conviction

By The Associated Press

10.29.02

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BOISE, Idaho — The conviction of a Canyon County man for disturbing the peace by using a four-letter word during an exchange with police was overturned yesterday by the Idaho Supreme Court.

The unanimous court said the statement Patrick Sheldon Suiter made in frustration in early 1998 was not likely to provoke violence and therefore was protected under the First Amendment's free-speech guarantee.

"While Suiter's statement was vulgar and impolite, the phrase is relatively common," Justice Wayne Kidwell wrote for the court.

The court reversed a rarely divided state Court of Appeals, which voted 2-1 to uphold the conviction on grounds that the provocative word could not be reasonably interpreted as the protected communication of information or opinion.

Dissenter Karen Lansing argued that while the word is insulting, justifying 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. She called Suiter's comment the vulgar equivalent of "Go jump in the lake."

The Supreme Court did not address the prospect of unjustified arrests or searches and did leave open the possibility that Suiter could still be convicted in a new trial if the state showed that his behavior — not his words — disturbed the peace and the jury was clearly instructed that Suiter's words were not to be considered.

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, according to police, and when the detective asked him to calm down, Suiter raised his voice, said the provocative word and turned to leave. It was then that two other deputies arrested him.

The Idaho Supreme Court ruling follows its decision in 2000 upholding 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.

Previous

Court considers consequences of cussing at cops
Idaho Supreme Court to decide whether man's free-speech rights were violated when he was arrested for swearing at sheriff's detective.  09.19.02

Related

ACLU fights Pennsylvania police on profanity arrests
Group files two lawsuits accusing Pittsburgh-area officers of violating people's free-speech rights by arresting them for swearing.  07.10.02

'Free' and other 4-letter words
By Ken Paulson Public profanity can violate our sensibilities, but generally doesn’t violate the law.  11.17.02

Watch what you say in Wisconsin
Two residents who were given disorderly conduct citations didn't know state law bars public swearing or using profane language on the telephone.  07.18.02

Cussing canoeist's conviction thrown out, along with 105-year-old law
Michigan Court of Appeals rules 1897 statute barring use of vulgar language in front of women, children is unconstitutional.  04.02.02

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