Florida woman fights conviction for wearing ‘sheriff’ T-shirt

Tuesday, July 31, 2001
This shirt spoofs one that Kimberly Sult wore when she was arrested on June 14 in Pinellas County, Fla. for wearing a T-shirt embossed with 5-inch letters that read ‘sheriff.’

Saying their client’s free-expression rights were violated, attorneys for a Florida woman are fighting her conviction for wearing a sheriff’s T-shirt.

Kimberly Sult was convicted of impersonating a law enforcement official in a Pinellas County court on July 18. Her attorneys filed a motion for a new trial on July 27.

Patrick Calcutt and John Trevena say their client has a right to choose her own clothing without being stopped by law enforcement officials.

“Wearing uniforms has become fashionable,” Calcutt told freedomforum.org. “You see people walking around in camouflage pants and you don’t see them being arrested,” he said. “Clothing is part of expression.”

Two sheriff’s deputies stopped Sult June 14 after she entered a St. Petersburg convenience store because she was wearing a T-shirt with the word “sheriff” printed on it in 5-inch yellow letters. On the back of the shirt were the words “Pinellas County Sheriff’s office.”

“She was wearing the shirt around the house when she decided to go to the store,” Calcutt said.

Prosecutors say deputies arrested Sult after she showed them an old sheriff’s department I.D. that she had kept from her days as a jail worker.

Prosecutor Lydia Wardell told freedomforum.org that the arresting officers said Sult made them believe she was a current employee although she had been fired from the sheriff’s department in 1999 for missing 39 consecutive days.

“They asked her, ‘Are you one of us?’ and she said ‘Yes I am,’ ” Wardell said. Sult then showed the deputies the I.D. card with the words “Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office Member,” typed on it, Wardell said.

After more questioning about her shift and job location, Sult admitted that she no longer worked for the sheriff’s department, Wardell said.

“The case turned on the fact that she opened her wallet, showed the I.D. card and represented herself as an officer,” Wardell said. “If this case was just about the T-shirt, we would not have proceeded.”

But the jurors who found Sult guilty of a misdemeanor said the case shouldn’t have gone to trial.

“In our collective opinion, this case should never have been prosecuted by the state of Florida,” jury foreman Jeffrey Coleman of Pinellas Park was quoted as saying in a July 19 St. Petersburg Times article. “If the sheriff doesn’t want these T-shirts on the street, then they need to clamp down” on the merchandisers who sell them, he said.

Sult was fined $300 and received no probation or jail time.

In court documents, Sult’s attorneys argued that the Florida statute used to prosecute her was “unconstitutionally vague and overbroad, infringing on conduct protected by the First Amendment and the Florida Constitution.”

The Florida law says it is illegal for a person who is not an authorized law enforcement agent “to wear or display any authorized indicia of authority, including any badge, insignia, emblem, identification card, or uniform, or any colorable imitation thereof, of any federal, state, county, or municipal law enforcement agency … which could deceive a reasonable person into believing that such item is authorized by any of the agencies described above.”

In their court filings, Calcutt and Trevena argued that “criminalizing what is in effect the mere possession of a widely available, commercially bought T-shirt and a civilian employee I.D. card violates the defendant’s rights under due process.” The I.D. card that Sult showed the deputies was not an “authorized indicia of authority” which could deceive a reasonable person to believe that she was a sheriff’s officer, they claim.

“She never said or did anything to make someone think she was a law enforcement officer,” Calcutt said. “I think this statute is designed to prevent someone from harming another person. It’s not designed to prevent someone from wearing whatever they want.”

But Wardell said the statute criminalizes the “mere act of wearing the T-shirt and displaying the I.D. card, regardless of what her intent was.”

The defense’s court documents also refer to a 1993 Florida case, Wyche v. State, in which the Florida Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment and the Florida Constitution “protect not only speech and the written word, but also conduct intended to communicate.”

Sult’s attorneys say their client has the right to express herself by wearing whatever she wants. “If it’s not illegal to wear a gang bandana, then why should it be illegal to wear a T-shirt with ‘sheriff’ on it?” Calcutt asked.

“Law enforcement officials always believe you have fewer rights of speech and expression than the (U.S.) Constitution says you do,” he said.

Sult purchased the T-shirt at a Largo uniform store called Americana Uniform, Calcutt said. The shirt was not a part of Sult’s official uniform when she was an employee with the sheriff’s department, he said.

Americana Uniform “is a store that’s open to the public, as well as law enforcement officials,” he added.

Pinellas County Chief Deputy Jim Coats, however, said the T-shirt was not available for public purchase, according to a June 20 St. Petersburg Times article.

But a St. Petersburg Times reporter bought the same shirt at Americana Uniform for $16 without presenting a sheriff’s department I.D. card, according to the newspaper.

Store owner Anita Struzik said the sale to the reporter was a mistake, the newspaper reported. Usually customers must show an employee I.D. card to buy the shirt, she said.

“Since the T-shirt, and others like it, are freely available to the public, no one is on notice that the wearing of it is prohibited,” stated Sult’s attorneys in court documents.

But Wardell says it should be clear to anyone that the shirt is an official sheriff’s shirt.

“(Sult) knew it was part of a uniform,” Wardell was quoted as saying in the July 19 St. Petersburg Times article. “Even a 5-year-old would know that (wearing the shirt) suggests she’s a member of law enforcement.”

Sult’s attorneys say that if their motion for a new trial is denied, as they expect it will be, they’ll file an appeal in federal court.

Since Sult’s conviction, the sheriff’s department has revised its policy for arresting people for wearing department insignia without authorization. On July 19, Pinellas County Sheriff Everett Rice directed his deputies not to enforce the statute unless a suspect was committing an additional crime, such as a burglary or trespassing, Trevena said in a July 20 CNN interview.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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