By Kevin Deutsch
A First Amendment activist arrested for distributing fliers outside the Bronx Hall of Justice is suing the state, claiming a law criminalizing certain speech within 200 feet of a courthouse violates his constitutional rights.
Michael Picard says he was handing out leaflets advocating for jury nullification – the practice of jurors acquitting defendants on principle when they deem a law unjust – when two court officers approached him.
The officers “said that I would need to move 200 feet away from the courthouse to continue handing out fliers,” Picard wrote in an account posted Friday on the ACLU’s website. “When I refused to move, the court officers arrested me, searched me, and seized my property. I was ultimately detained for 10 hours …arrested under a state law that makes it a crime to talk about judicial proceedings within 200 feet of a courthouse.”
Current state law deems a person guilty of second degree criminal contempt, a misdemeanor, when “he calls aloud, shouts, holds or displays placards or signs containing written or printed matter, concerning the conduct of a trial being held in such courthouse or the character of the court or jury engaged in such trial or calling for or demanding any specified action or determination by such court or jury in connection with such trial.”
Such activity is illegal, the law says, “on or along a public street or sidewalk within a radius of two hundred feet of any building established as a courthouse.”
Picard was also charged with jury tampering and wiretapping in the Dec. 4, 2017 incident, crimes which fall under the same section of New York’s legal code.
The case against him didn’t move forward because prosecutors said they lacked sufficient evidence to meet the state’s burden of proof.
The Bronx District Attorney’s Office “declined to prosecute me, but only because the arresting officer failed to measure whether I was standing within 200 feet of the courthouse at the time of my arrest. Otherwise, who knows what could have happened,” Picard wrote.
“The law says you can do this, but you have to be 200 feet away,” the officer says.
But the protestor wouldn’t budge.
A longtime activist, Picard has been arrested several times for what he said were legal protests, both for and against, various practices. He has brought several prior civil actions alleging First Amendment violations, and recorded and uploaded video of his run-ins with authorities.
“I brought this case because the government has no business criminalizing political speech just because it happens outside a courthouse,” Picard wrote of the Bronx lawsuit. “Courthouses are important public symbols, closely tied to the administration of justice. They are frequently important places for political speech on a wide range of issues, including police brutality, immigrants’ rights, and criminal justice reform.”
“Although it’s against the law to intentionally manipulate a juror’s vote in a specific case, speech informing people about the concept of jury nullification is entitled to the same constitutional protection as any other speech about our criminal justice system.”