Harassment conviction over racial slurs upheld

Monday, September 26, 2011

A man who clenched his fist and yelled racial slurs at a parking attendant for issuing him a ticket did not have a First Amendment defense against malicious harassment charges, a Washington state appeals court has ruled.

In May 2009, Charles Raymond Read and his wife drove to Elliott Bay Marina in Seattle to have dinner. Read parked his truck in a parking lot monitored by Diamond Parking Services. When the Reads returned to their truck after dinner, they found a ticket for parking in more than one parking space.

Read learned from a nearby valet that the ticket was issued by parking attendant Saba Zewdu. Enraged, Read drove up to Zewdu and asked, “Did you give me this fucking ticket?” He then followed with a racial slur and got out of his truck.

Zewdu, who stood 5 feet 2 inches and weighed 120 pounds, rejected the racial slur and told the 240-pound Caucasian Read that she was Ethiopian. Read then responded: “You fucking Ethiopian! You fucking Ethiopian.”

A frightened Zewdu fled and called 911. Police charged Read with malicious harassment. A trial court found him guilty, sentencing him to 30 days in jail and hundreds of hours of community service.

On appeal, Read contended that the First Amendment protected his use of racial slurs and that he did not violate the state malicious-harassment statute because he did not utter a true threat.

The law defines malicious harassment as intentionally threatening another person because of that person’s race, color, ancestry, national origin, gender, sexual orientation or physical or sensory handicap.

The Washington Court of Appeals affirmed Read’s conviction in its Sept. 19 opinion in State v. Read. The appeals court found that Read’s anger at receiving the parking ticket increased when he learned that Zewdu was Ethiopian.

“He threatened her because of her race, color, ancestry or national origin,” the court found.

To Read’s contention that he did not make a true threat, the appeals court held that, to the contrary, “sufficient evidence supports the determination that Read meant to communicate a serious expression of intent to harm Zewdu.”

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