SEATTLE (CN) – Overturning the conviction of a teenager who stood in his home and swore at police officers as they arrested his sister outside, the Washington Supreme Court ruled that the juvenile engaged in protected free speech.
The 2011 arrests stemmed from a mother’s report that her juvenile daughter was drunk and breaking windows.
As officers arrested the girl, identified in the decision as R.J., in her front yard, her 17-year-old brother E.J.J. stood in the doorway where he called police abusive names and hurled obscenities.
E.J.J. was standing 10 to 15 feet away from the action, behind a wrought-iron screen door.
Police allegedly told the boy numerous times to close the solid wooden door and retreat further into the home, but E.J.J. refused and continued to swear.
Police then arrested him for obstruction of a law-enforcement officer.
An intermediate appeals court upheld the boy’s conviction, but the state Supreme Court reversed Thursday.
“While E.J.J.’s words may have been disrespectful, discourteous, and annoying, they are nonetheless constitutionally protected,” the lead opinion by Associate Chief Justice Charles Johnson states.
“Where individuals exercise their constitutional rights to criticize how the police are handling a situation, they cannot be concerned about risking a criminal conviction for obstruction. Such a conviction is not permitted under the First Amendment,” Johnson added.
The court rejected the assertion that E.J.J. engaged in unprotected conduct “by approaching the officers while they were trying to calm R.J. down and by refusing to obey the officers’ requests to return to the house and close both the wrought iron and solid wood doors.”
E.J.J. “did not physically interfere with or touch either the police or his sister,” and he did not make any threatening movements, the ruling states.
Obstruction statutes “may not be used to limit citizens’ right to express verbal criticism, even abusive criticism, at police officers,” according to the opinion.
The King County Prosecutor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
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