Mont. court tosses woman’s disturbing-the-peace conviction

Monday, March 2, 2009

GREAT FALLS, Mont. — A district judge has reversed the convictions of a woman who was found guilty of disturbing a City Commission meeting here and hitting a plain-clothed police detective in the groin.

Judge Julie Macek ruled Feb. 24 that Susan Overfield of Vaughn did not disturb the peace during the June 2007 meeting. The judge also ruled that Overfield was allowed to defend herself against police Detective Art Schalin because she reasonably believed he was an unfamiliar man when he grabbed her arm to escort her out of the meeting.

Mayor Dona Stebbins had ordered that Overfield be removed from her position at a lectern because she exceeded a three-minute speaking limit during the public-comment portion of the meeting. Overfield had been criticizing city officials about the Great Falls animal shelter.

A six-person jury convicted Overfield in March 2008 of misdemeanor disorderly conduct and assault, and she was sentenced to five days of house arrest and was fined more than $700. Overfield appealed last fall on the grounds that she was exercising her First Amendment rights, that she was justified in defending herself, that Schalin violated a law requiring him to identify himself to Overfield and that the court erred in its instructions to the jury.

Macek agreed with most of Overfield’s claims, noting that Overfield’s actions before her removal were not disruptive.

“Although the content of Overfield’s speech was direct and confrontational she did not disturb the peace by stating her opinion,” Macek wrote in her ruling in State v. Overfield. “Until such time as the mayor advised her that her time was up and Overfield responded that she needed to finish her statement there had been no issue with Overfield whatsoever. …

“It was not until a plainclothes Officer Schalin grabbed Overfield’s documents and her arm to escort her out of the room that there was any disorder at all,” the judge added.

The resulting disturbance, Macek said, was caused by the fact that Overfield did not know Schalin and did not know he was a police officer.

As such, Macek ruled, Overfield’s actions were protected speech.

Macek also ruled that the jury was improperly instructed that they could find Overfield guilty of disorderly conduct on the basis of making loud or unusual noises. The judge added that the jury was misinformed that Overfield could not legally resist Schalin’s attempt to escort her out of the room. Macek, however, rejected Overfield’s claim that Schalin was required by law to identify himself.

“I always felt I had done nothing wrong and I thought Montana law would prove me right, and it did,” Overfield said Feb. 26. “I’ve moved on.”

City Attorney David Gilko declined to comment Feb. 26, saying he was not aware of Macek’s ruling. The city prosecutor at Overfield’s trial, Chad Parker, could not be reached for comment. Stebbins did not return phone messages in time for this story.

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