Did court act wisely in jailing woman for vulgar T-shirt?

Friday, May 7, 2010

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The Chicago Tribune has reported that a Lake County, Ill., judge sentenced 20-year-old Jennifer LaPenta to two days in jail for contempt for wearing an inappropriate T-shirt in court.

According to the order issued earlier this week by Lake County Associate Judge Helen Rozenberg, LaPenta sat in the front row of the courtroom, wearing a T-shirt that read: “I have the pussy so I make the rules.” The Tribune reported that LaPenta had accompanied a friend who needed to settle some traffic tickets at the courthouse. Soon after LaPenta was seated in the courtroom, the paper said, Rozenberg summoned her to the front and questioned her about the shirt.

LaPenta told the newspaper that she offered to remove the T-shirt but the judge said it was too late and ordered her to jail.

A similar situation occurred more than 30 years ago in another Illinois courtroom involving a then-19-year-old Sue Watts, who wore a T-shirt that read “Bitch, Bitch” in 5-inch letters. The Stephenson County court judge sentenced her to three days in jail for the vulgar shirt, saying: “You’re not very lady-like wearing that on the street, I don’t think. … It is a vulgarity. It borders on obscenity and it impinges on the dignity of the court.”

On appeal, the Illinois appeals court reversed the trial judge’s three-day contempt sentence, finding that the judge failed to act reasonably. In In Re Watts (1978), the court said “contempt requires some form of constructive or actual knowledge of what conduct is forbidden in order that people can avoid such conduct.”

The appeals court explained that Watts’ shirt was “not proper courtroom attire” but noted that she was “not given a reasonable opportunity to alter her behavior.”

A key question is whether LaPenta was given an opportunity to replace her T-shirt. If she was not, the actions of the judge become questionable.

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