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Sheriff Thinks He Can Use Bogus Disorderly Conduct Charges To Shut Down Speech He Doesn't Like

Published: November 17, 2017
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Source: tech dirt

A Texas sheriff did some pandering to his base this week, ultimately making a fool of himself. On Monday, Sheriff Troy Nehls posted the following to Facebook:

If you can't see it, it's a photo of a truck with a decal attached to the rear window. The decal reads:

Fuck Trump and fuck you for voting for him

Here's what Sheriff Nehls wrote:

I have received numerous calls regarding the offensive display on this truck as it is often seen along FM 369. If you know who owns this truck or it is yours, we would like to discuss it with you. Our Prosecutor informs us she would accept Disorderly Conduct charges regarding it, but I feel we could come to an agreement regarding a modification of it.

This is stupid on every single level. First off, as former police officer and current attorney Greg Prickett points out in his post at Simple Justice, there's no way those charges would stick.

Sheriff, that's political speech, and it's protected speech. You don't get to silence it because you don't like it, or even because it offends you, the District Attorney, or anyone else. The Disorderly Conduct statute in Texas is very clear on this.

You can charge someone with Disorderly Conduct if "the language by its very utterance tends to incite an immediate breach of the peace," or if the "display tends to incite an immediate breach of the peace…" That hasn't happened here. If Fonseca and her family have been driving around for almost a year and there have been no fights, no disturbances, no riots or so forth, you are not going to be able to prove that there was a danger of an "immediate breach of the peace."

Instead, Nehls may have rained down fire on his own idiotic head by pursuing it.

What you may have, instead, is another crime, a much more serious crime, being threatened by Sheriff Nehls. If Nehls goes through with his threat, it could very well meet the elements of the offense of Official Oppression, which states:

(a) A public servant acting under color of his office or employment commits an offense if he:

(1) intentionally subjects another to mistreatment or to arrest, detention, search, seizure, dispossession, assessment, or lien that he knows is unlawful;

(2) intentionally denies or impedes another in the exercise or enjoyment of any right, privilege, power, or immunity, knowing his conduct is unlawful…

Now, let's get to the rest of the moronic post.

It is highly doubtful the Sheriff has "received numerous calls" about a window decal. Even given the sorry state of Americans' understanding of the First Amendment, most people would realize a sweary decal is not a law enforcement issue. More likely, the Sheriff or one of his deputies spotted it and took a photo or, at best, a concerned citizen sent it to the apparently pro-Trump Sheriff in hopes that he would abuse the law to shut down protected speech. (If so, well played, citizen. Everyone loves an American who believes in less rights for people they don't agree with.)

Next, the "discussion" proposed by the Sheriff is a bait-and-switch. Unlike most bait-and-switch purveyors, Sheriff Nehls is too excited about prosecution to allow the bait to do its work. By pitching it as a voluntary interaction, Nehls covers his ass on official oppression. But he immediately uncovers it by referring to a prosecutor just dying to punish protected expression with a bogus disorderly conduct charge.

That brings us to perhaps the stupidest part of Nehls' post. Nehls states a prosecutor is willing to move forward with charges. That appears to be a lie.

KHOU 11 News also reached out to the Fort Bend County District Attorney.

He says the Sheriff never consulted him before posting the suggestion the driver may be charged with disorderly conduct.

He made it clear his office would not accept charges against that driver simply because of the profanity and message on the truck.

It's unclear who Nehls is referring to. This prosecutor is a he (Nehl's post refers to a "she"), and he apparently would be in charge of prosecuting cases brought to him by the Sheriff. I suppose he could be referring to one of the other prosecutors in the DA's office, but all cases would presumably be signed off by the DA himself before moving forward. If one of them offered to help the Sheriff fight his battle against the First Amendment, they would be aiding and abetting official oppression.

Having outed himself as a law enforcement official willing to oppress speech under the color of law, Nehls gracelessly deleted his Facebook post. He then went on to issue a statement to the effect of "I just wanted to talk to this person about their bumper sticker… but with the dangling threat of prosecution as a backdrop."

Nehls addressed the post in a press conference Wednesday afternoon.

"People have called and are offended by the language," said Nehls. "I simply want to talk to the owner and say 'Look the last thing we need to do is have anyone have any confrontation over the language on your truck.'"

But this can't possibly be true. If all Nehls wanted to do is talk, he had plenty of time to do so. And he could have done it without dragging the vehicle owners into his social media debacle. But it appears he'd rather grandstand on Facebook than do actual police work and, you know, track down the owners of the vehicle. Even with the head start of license plate database access and its favored route of travel, the local news team managed to be the first people to actually talk to the truck owners.

KHOU 11 News tracked down the owners of the truck, Karen and Mike Fonseca. They are stunned and angry that Nehls would start this debate on Facebook instead of calling them personally.

They say they're entitled to their free speech.

"There's no law against freedom of speech, nothing in the law book here in Texas, I've been stopped numerous times, but they can't write me a ticket," said Karen Fonseca.

The truck owners are more right in two sentences than Nehls was in a Facebook post and ensuing press conference. They are definitely right to be angry about Nehls' casual abuse of office that turned them into targets for hate from like-minded fans of free speech curtailment.

Above all else, Sheriff Nehls is a disingenous asshole.

The sheriff said he wants to avoid a situation where somebody could take offense to the sign on the truck, possibly leading to a confrontation.

"I don't want to see anything happen to anyone," Nehls said. "With people's ... mindset today, that's the last thing we need, a breach of the peace."

Then why the fuck would you post a photo of the truck and decal to Facebook? You're just begging for a "breach of the peace." You've turned the owners into a target for pro-Trump partisans and people who like to yell at other people for public swearing. You pulled some petty bullshit under the color of law and have the audacity to claim your foremost concern is the truck owners' safety. If this is what the public gets to see of your mindset and retaliatory nature, one can only imagine what goes on behind the scenes.

Nehls says he wants to "come to an agreement regarding a modification" to the anti-Trump decal. I can suggest one, but I doubt the Sheriff will like it.

And, of course, as I put the finishing touches on this post comes the news that Fonseca has been arrested -- though for an outstanding warrant.

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