Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Judges Don't Like the F-Bomb

US v. Peoples: Peoples was a prisoner with multiple pending 1983 actions that lingered until after he was released from custody.  When it was time for the cases to be tried, Peoples had problems appearing in court on time.  During the first trial, the judge told Peoples if he was late again, his case would be dismissed, but that trial concluded without incident.  As did the second, although a legitimate car problem caused Peoples to be late one day, leading to another warning form the judge.

On the second day of his third trial, Peoples was late again, leading the judge to dismiss the case.  Peoples left the courtroom, saying "I was wanting to dismiss my shit anyway."  Peoples then came back into the courtroom while the judge went into the jury room to talk to the jurors.  Peoples went up to a clerk and said, "[t]ell Judge Currie get the fuck off all my cases.  I started to tell her something there.  I started to tell her ass something today."  A court reporter in the courtroom turned on a recorder and taped some of Peoples's comments (which included a reference for the judge to either "straighten the fuck up" or "straight the fuck up").  Peoples left and the judge charged him with criminal contempt (along with referring the matter to another judge).

When it came time for Peoples's contempt trial he was more than an hour late.  As a result, after the originally scheduled contempt trial ended with People's being convicted and sentenced to four months in prison, a second trial was held on contempt based on Peoples's tardiness.  He was convicted a second time and sentenced to a consecutive term of 30 days in jail.  Peoples challenged both of his convictions on appeal.

With regards to the initial contempt charge, the Fourth Circuit affirmed, concluding that the evidence was sufficient to sustain the conviction.  It rejected Peoples's argument that his conduct was not "misbehavior" because the language he used was not directed at the judge personally and was simply venting his frustration in language that some might find offensive.  The  court concluded that Peoples's outburst was directed at the judge.  The court also rejected Peoples's argument that his outburst did not obstruct the administration of justice because it occurred after the case was over and didn't impact the performance of the court.  The court noted that prior precedent had held that the act of investigating such an outburst causes court personnel to neglect other duties.

As to the second conviction, however, the Fourth Circuit reversed.  The court agreed with Peoples that summary criminal contempt proceedings are not appropriate in cases involving tardiness or absence from court.  In such cases, the procedural requirements of Rule 42(a) of the Rules of Criminal Procedure must be followed.  The court rejected the Government's argument that, although the judge said the second trial was a summary proceeding under Rule 42(b), it provided the requisite safeguards laid out in Rule 42(a), anyway.

Congrats to the FPD office in South Carolina on the (partial) win!