Trials & Litigation

Traffic court defendant didn't deserve jail for cursing in courthouse hallway, says appellate court

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A judge went too far in imposing an eight-day, indirect criminal-contempt sentence for using using the F-word in a traffic court hallway, an Illinois appellate court found last week.

Valerie Perez, who was in court for a speeding ticket, uttered the profanity after Will County Circuit Court Carmen Goodman took an 11:30 a.m. recess, the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin reports.

“I waited all fucking morning, and now she takes a break and I’m tired of waiting,” Perez was overheard saying, according to the Wednesday opinion (PDF). Bailiff Bev Richardson testified that she told Perez to not speak that way, and after that, Perez “simmered down.”

When the bailiff told the judge what had happened, Goodman returned to the bench and instructed the government to prepare a petition, putting Perez on notice that she was being charged with indirect criminal contempt based on her conduct.

“Judge, normally I can’t give this to the court. I don’t know what the person said. I’m sorry,” was the prosecutor’s response. According to the opinion, Goodman told the prosecutor that he didn’t need personal knowledge of Perez’s behavior to draft the petition. The petition, the opinion notes, is handwritten and unsigned.

The judge probably should have recused herself from the case, the opinion notes, since she discussed it with an eyewitness.

Perez’s lawyer requested a brief continuance to prepare for trial, which Goodman denied. She found Perez guilty of contempt. Neither attorney was allowed to give closing arguments, and the judge asked the government for a sentencing recommendation before allowing the defense to make a record for argument.

Goodman also insisted that it was a quasi-criminal case, with a preponderance of evidence standard.

“It was disruptive to my court and the administration of justice because I had to go and stop whatever that I was doing in order to—and I had to get back in here and I had two hearings in order to hear about the fact that [respondent] felt like she was inconvenienced once I took a break. I had 115 cases on my call. And the words that were used were very disrespectful to what I try to do here each and every day,” Goodman said before sentencing Perez.

Based on those remarks, the Illinois Third District Appellate Court wrote, it appeared that the judge thought Perez was trying to embarrass her. The state didn’t prove that, according to the opinion. It noted that Perez did not use profanity when speaking directly to or about the judge. Rather, she used the f-word as an adjective describing time.

“Since the bailiff testified respondent entered the hallway after the court recessed, at 11:30 a.m., there seems to be an element of truthfulness to respondent’s declaration and verbalized frustration,” the opinion states. “These remarks about the additional delay resulting from the recess may constitute protected speech under the First Amendment.”

The appellate court also notes that Perez calmed down after the bailiff asked her to stop swearing.

Mario A. Kladis, an assistant appellate defender, represents Perez. He told the Law Bulletin that his client served four days of her eight-day sentence.

“All she was alleged to have done is complained about how long things were taking,” he said. “Granted, she did say the ‘f-word’—and I know people have a hard time dealing with the ‘f-word.’ But it’s not usually considered a criminal act to say it.”

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