High Schooler Tweet, Suspension Raises First Amendment Issues

The case of a Minnesota high school student who is suing his former school as the result of a suspension has come back into the light at the online site of the American Bar Association (ABA) Journal. While the Twitter incident which led to the student suspension occurred at the beginning of 2014, the circumstances surrounding the incident raise important questions about not only the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution but also about how to approach behavior from a legal standpoint in what is still the relatively new world of social media. The Power of Just Two Words In January of 2014, Rogers High School senior Reid Sagehorn was on the last leg of his high school career. As a National Honor Society member with a 3.8 G.P.A., captain of both the football and basketball teams at his high school, and a student who had already received his letter of acceptance to North Dakota State University, the future was looking bright for Sagehorn. Then he made a mistake common to many high school students—and adults for that matter. He made a joke online which was both false and potentially damaging to another party, raising questions of the bounds of the First Amendment. In an online confession group which Elk River Superintendent Mark Bezek told the Minneapolis Star Tribune the school didn’t even know existed, Sagehorn posted a two word response when someone asked if he had ever “made out” a 28-year-old female gym teacher. Sagehorn’s response was “actually, yeah.” According to the Star Tribune, even though Sagehorn admitted this was just a joke, approximately a week after the incident, he was called into the principal’s office and suspended for five days. Principal Pierskalla told Sagehorn’s mother that Reid was suspended because he “damaged a teacher’s reputation.” The five days turned to a ten day suspension, which turned into a nearly two-month suspension. This additional suspension was justified by saying that Sagehorn was guilty of “threatening, intimidating, or assault of a teacher, administrator, or other staff member.” Additionally, the Rogers police chief, Jeff Beahen, said they were looking into potential felony charges of defamation; however, within a few days, the Hennepin County Attorney’s office said there would be no charges. In June, after graduating from another high school, Sagehorn filed the suit against the Elk River School District and Police Chief Beahen, as well as Superintendent Bezek, Principal Pierskalla, Assistant Superintendent Jana Hennen-Burr, and police liason Stephen Sarazin. The 31-page suit claims that Sagehorn’s First Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment rights were violated and that his name “is forever linked with the term ‘felony.’” Sagehorn’s suit seeks monetary damages, policy changes to protect other students, and expungement of Sagehorn’s suspension from his record. Is a Tweet Cause for Suspension or a Case for the First Amendment? Several questions arise, primarily brought up by Sagehorn’s attorneys when it comes to this case. Even though Sagehorn publicly apologized and admonished himself for the actions—stating that “No matter how I meant it, [it] doesn’t matter … Sarcasm doesn’t belong on the Internet.”—intentions don’t always come into play when it comes to questions of guilt or innocence. However, attorneys for Sagehorn believe the school and law enforcement reactions when it came to the actions of a minor are very important. Regarding their justification of Sagehorn’s actions being “threatening” and “disrupting,” Raleigh Levine, a professor at William Mitchell College of Law who specializes in the First Amendment, was quoted in a KARE 11 article as saying, “The facts are particularly bad for the school because there’s not threatening behavior here … [T]he only disruption from speech came because of the school’s extreme reaction to it.” The lawsuit also takes issue with Police Chief Beahan’s claim that Sagehorn’s conduct was like “crying or yelling, ‘Fire!’ in a movie theater or saying, ‘I got a bomb,’ on a plane,” two instances where the protections of the First Amendment are questioned. However, the suit goes on to say that Sagehorn’s comments couldn’t be compared to those examples, and that in addition to a violation of the First Amendment, his privacy was invaded considering the actions occurred outside of school hours, off school property, and on his personal computer. When Superintendent Bezek found out about the lawsuit, he was surprised. However, he went on record with the Star Tribune as saying that he believed it’s hard to keep up with the technological world. “Kids are living in a world without consequences and boundaries,” Bezek said. Bezek went on to say that he had just returned from a superintendent’s convention when he found about the lawsuit. The primary topic of the convention was “staying out of trouble with social media.” Bezek said he wasn’t sure if the rules in place today were appropriate for the “game” kids were playing with technology. Professor Levine would agree with Bezek in this instance, saying that cases like Sagehorn’s were occurring across the country. “I think schools not only in Minnesota but all over the country are looking at the cases again because there hasn’t been any kind [of] definitive guidance from the Supreme Court,” Levine said. According to Sagehorn’s attorneys, as of December, the Elk River School District and Rogers Police Department had answered the complaint and filed motions to dismiss.

Photo: Steindy/Wikimedia Commons

The case of a Minnesota high school student who is suing his former school as the result of a suspension has come back into the light at the online site of the American Bar Association (ABA) Journal. While the Twitter incident which led to the student suspension occurred at the beginning of 2014, the circumstances surrounding the incident raise important questions about not only the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution but also about how to approach behavior from a legal standpoint in what is still the relatively new world of social media.

The Power of Just Two Words

In January of 2014, Rogers High School senior Reid Sagehorn was on the last leg of his high school career. As a National Honor Society member with a 3.8 G.P.A., captain of both the football and basketball teams at his high school, and a student who had already received his letter of acceptance to North Dakota State University, the future was looking bright for Sagehorn.

Then he made a mistake common to many high school students—and adults for that matter. He made a joke online which was both false and potentially damaging to another party, raising questions of the bounds of the First Amendment.

In an online confession group which Elk River Superintendent Mark Bezek told the Minneapolis Star Tribune the school didn’t even know existed, Sagehorn posted a two word response when someone asked if he had ever “made out” a 28-year-old female gym teacher. Sagehorn’s response was “actually, yeah.”

According to the Star Tribune, even though Sagehorn admitted this was just a joke, approximately a week after the incident, he was called into the principal’s office and suspended for five days. Principal Pierskalla told Sagehorn’s mother that Reid was suspended because he “damaged a teacher’s reputation.”

The five days turned to a ten day suspension, which turned into a nearly two-month suspension. This additional suspension was justified by saying that Sagehorn was guilty of “threatening, intimidating, or assault of a teacher, administrator, or other staff member.” Additionally, the Rogers police chief, Jeff Beahen, said they were looking into potential felony charges of defamation; however, within a few days, the Hennepin County Attorney’s office said there would be no charges.

In June, after graduating from another high school, Sagehorn filed the suit against the Elk River School District and Police Chief Beahen, as well as Superintendent Bezek, Principal Pierskalla, Assistant Superintendent Jana Hennen-Burr, and police liason Stephen Sarazin. The 31-page suit claims that Sagehorn’s First Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment rights were violated and that his name “is forever linked with the term ‘felony.’”

Sagehorn’s suit seeks monetary damages, policy changes to protect other students, and expungement of Sagehorn’s suspension from his record.

Is a Tweet Cause for Suspension or a Case for the First Amendment?

Several questions arise, primarily brought up by Sagehorn’s attorneys when it comes to this case.

Even though Sagehorn publicly apologized and admonished himself for the actions—stating that “No matter how I meant it, [it] doesn’t matter … Sarcasm doesn’t belong on the Internet.”—intentions don’t always come into play when it comes to questions of guilt or innocence. However, attorneys for Sagehorn believe the school and law enforcement reactions when it came to the actions of a minor are very important.

Regarding their justification of Sagehorn’s actions being “threatening” and “disrupting,” Raleigh Levine, a professor at William Mitchell College of Law who specializes in the First Amendment, was quoted in a KARE 11 article as saying, “The facts are particularly bad for the school because there’s not threatening behavior here … [T]he only disruption from speech came because of the school’s extreme reaction to it.”

The lawsuit also takes issue with Police Chief Beahan’s claim that Sagehorn’s conduct was like “crying or yelling, ‘Fire!’ in a movie theater or saying, ‘I got a bomb,’ on a plane,” two instances where the protections of the First Amendment are questioned. However, the suit goes on to say that Sagehorn’s comments couldn’t be compared to those examples, and that in addition to a violation of the First Amendment, his privacy was invaded considering the actions occurred outside of school hours, off school property, and on his personal computer.

When Superintendent Bezek found out about the lawsuit, he was surprised. However, he went on record with the Star Tribune as saying that he believed it’s hard to keep up with the technological world.

“Kids are living in a world without consequences and boundaries,” Bezek said.

Bezek went on to say that he had just returned from a superintendent’s convention when he found about the lawsuit. The primary topic of the convention was “staying out of trouble with social media.” Bezek said he wasn’t sure if the rules in place today were appropriate for the “game” kids were playing with technology.

Professor Levine would agree with Bezek in this instance, saying that cases like Sagehorn’s were occurring across the country.

“I think schools not only in Minnesota but all over the country are looking at the cases again because there hasn’t been any kind [of] definitive guidance from the Supreme Court,” Levine said.

According to Sagehorn’s attorneys, as of December, the Elk River School District and Rogers Police Department had answered the complaint and filed motions to dismiss.

Open Container One of Charges for Man who Head-butts Patrol Car

open container for head-butting man

Photo: SimplyElke

A man was arrested in Davis County on Wednesday, March 11, after allegedly smashing a window in a patrol car with his head and threatening law enforcement, among other things. While the man received a laundry list of potential charges which aren’t as common—both felonies and misdemeanors—the charge of having an open container in the vehicle is one that occurs a little more frequently.

A Perfect Example of “Disorderly Conduct”

According to a report in KSL News, at approximately 10:30 p.m. on Wednesday night, a Clinton patrol officer stopped Randy Duane Ochsner, 54, and was soon assisted by a Davis County Sheriff’s Office deputy. Believing Ochsner to be driving impaired—but not yet having discovered the open container… or other things in the vehicle which would get Ochsner in trouble—a field sobriety test was conducted during which Ochsner became agitated. After being cuffed against the passenger side of the patrol car, things just got worse.

According to Sgt. DeeAnn Servey, “He became very upset and decided to bash his forehead into the passenger rear window of the Davis County Sheriff’s patrol car, which led to the window completely shattering and several injuries to his face.”

When medical personnel responded, Ochsner was still reportedly belligerent, attempting to kick one of the EMTs and spit on both health care workers and responding officers, the latter of which landed him a “propelling a bodily substance” assault charge.

In addition, while traveling to a local hospital, Ochsner allegedly threatened to shoot one of the deputies in the head. After treatment for his injuries, Ochsner was transported to the David County Jail. A search of his vehicle turned up drug paraphernalia and controlled substances, which lead to possession charges for both.

In addition to those charges and propelling a bodily substance, Ochsner was arrested on suspicion of assaulting an officer, interference with an arresting officer, making terroristic threats, criminal mischief, failure to install an ignition interlock device, being an alcohol restricted driver, driving under the influence with two or more prior convictions within 10 years, and having an open container in the vehicle.

Understanding the Open Container Law

While the least serious of Ochsner’s charges, having an open container is a charge many people come face-to-face with, sometimes simply for not understanding the law. According to 41-6a-526 of the Utah Motor Vehicles Traffic Code, “a person may not drink any alcoholic beverage while operating a motor vehicle or while a passenger in a motor vehicle, whether the vehicle is moving, stopped, or parked on any highway or waters of the state.”

This section of the open container code also states that a person may not have a container with a seal that has been broken or contents partially consumed in the passenger compartment, including a utility of glove compartment, even if they aren’t driving impaired.

Exceptions for both the drinking and possession of an open container are made for passengers in the living quarters of a motor home or camper, a limousine or chartered bus, or in a motorboat. While drinking in a taxicab or bus is still prohibited, possession of an open container in those vehicles is legal.

Breaking this section of the traffic code is a class C misdemeanor, punishable by up to 90 days in jail and a $750 fine. Even though class C is the least serious of the misdemeanors, it’s still not something to gamble with. If you or someone you know has been charged with being in possession of an open container, contact an experienced criminal defense attorney.

Jail Overcrowding in Illinois Eased via Controversial Measures

Easing Jail Overcrowding

Photo: Monique/Wikimedia Commons

At a time when Utah is facing prison overcrowding issues, matched with a facility at Point of the Mountain in Draper that is considered incapable of supporting the growing prison population, Cook County in Illinois is proposing and enhancing several measures which seek to reduce not only their own jail overcrowding issues but also perceived problems in the state’s criminal justice system in general.

Most of these measures put Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart firmly in the spotlight, either supporting such issues as a “rocket docket” for low-level cases, or expressing concerns over increases in defendants being released into electronic monitoring.

Easing Jail Overcrowding the Sheriff’s Way

According to articles in both the ABA Journal and Chicago Tribune, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart is critical of the very criminal justice system he helps to administer. In his most recent actions, Dart has implemented some changes and proposed others in an effort to ease jail overcrowding in his county.

The first area Dart wants to address is the length of jail stays—perhaps more importantly, the cost of those stays—for detainees being held on minor offenses. In a press conference on Tuesday, March 10, Dart said the system is “not set up to care” about these detainees who may sometimes wait for months for their case to be resolved.

Using an example of a man who spent 114 days in jail for allegedly stealing a pack of candy bars, a stay which cost taxpayers more than $16,000, Dart criticized “the outrageous amounts of money we spend incarcerating the wrong people.” He said the system leads to not only jail overcrowding but also “unjust incarceration.”

Addressing the latter part of the statement, Dart—who has referred to the Cook County Jail as the largest mental health facility in the country—is proposing a diversion program for mentally ill defendants, but the outcome of that proposal remains to be seen.

In order to address the overly lengthy and costly stays, starting the week of March 16th and continuing every week thereafter, Dart said county officials will identify five-to-ten cases where they believe people should not still be held in jail, and then work with county prosecutors and public defenders in an attempt to fast track those particular cases.

Along the lines of fast tracking, Dart is also proposing legislation for a “rocket docket” which would give the county 30 days to work out cases of retail theft and criminal trespassing before the defendants would be released on recognizance bonds or electronic monitoring. Dart said he believes that if successful, this could potentially be applied to low-level drug offenses as well.

When Easing Jail Overcrowding Increases Stress

The issue of electronic monitoring is an issue that is more of a concern to Dart, seeing as those defendants are under his office’s responsibility. Even though Dart has pushed for releasing more nonviolent offenders on electronic monitoring and instituted a program in 2013 which would intensely monitor “high priority defendants”—to include three daily unannounced visits from sheriff’s deputies—the 70 percent increase of defendants put on electronic monitoring last year by Cook County judges has the Cook County Sheriff’s Office scrambling to keep up.

With electronic monitoring, a defendant wears an ankle or wrist bracelets which sends radio signals to a cellular tower to assure the defendant is staying within the confines of their release (which may include places of employment). While electronic monitoring has been shown an effective tool for easing jail overcrowding and allowing defendants to continue working and supporting their families, it also raises several concerns. One issue is judges worrying that they are releasing the wrong defendants back into the public simply to go on to commit another crime spree.

This issue came to a head in Cook County when Chief Judge Timothy Evans stated that a long-standing federal court order directed Dart as the sheriff to decide who would be released onto electronic monitoring. Dart maintained that judges would know better if a defendant might be dangerous or a flight risk.

Evans also said the sheriff’s office wasn’t releasing everyone who had been ordered onto electronic monitoring. However, Dart stated that just because a defendant is ordered onto electronic monitoring doesn’t mean they will be released. Certain circumstances—such as a defendant being homeless or not being able to raise the money necessary for their bond—may lead to those defendants remaining in jail.

Perhaps in response to this dispute and Dart’s other pushes for easing jail overcrowding, Cook County judges ordered 14,717 male and female defendants awaiting trail onto electronic monitoring, as opposed to 8,657 in 2013. The sheriff’s office reported that the jail population dropped from 10,388 in February of 2013 to 8,427 at the beginning of March of this year, reflecting a trend that is the opposite of many other places in the country, including Utah.

However, Dart is concerned that it seems judges are releasing considerably more defendants to electronic monitoring who are potentially dangerous. Many of these defendants would fall under the Cook County Sheriff’s Office “high priority” category, which would mean increased supervision and responsibilities to Dart and his deputies.

While one such high-profile defendant—a former suburban deputy fire chief charged with attempted murder among several other crimes—had originally complained about the intense supervision, claiming it bordered on harassment, he has since come around to accepting the situation as a condition of his release.

“It sure beats being in jail,” he said.