Oklahoma Appeals Court Overturns Conviction of Peaceful Protester22-Aug-2016
The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals overturned two convictions of a New Jersey woman arrested after praying in protest of a Satanic black mass held at the Oklahoma City Civic Center.
Joan Bell, 68, knelt and prayed the Rosary outside of the Civic Center in protest of the black mass held inside, and event which she calls a "hate crime" and a parody of the Catholic Mass.
Bell's attorney says that she had been standing outside an exit of the Civic Center for a couple of hours, but was ordered by police to leave the premises only after she began to pray. The protester refused to leave, and when police attempted to arrest her, she went limp and had to be carried away.
The woman was initially arrested on municipal complaints of trespassing on private property and interference with official process. However, the charges were later amended to disorderly conduct and interfering or obstructing by disobeying a lawful command. In May 2015, Bell was found guilty of each municipal count at a bench trial, and she was fined $500 for each offense.
Bell appealed the municipal judge's decision, citing insufficient evidence and arguing that her arrest was illegal and violated activity protected under the First Amendment.
Last week, the appeals court ruled in Bell's favor, throwing out both convictions in a nearly unanimous decision. Five of the appellate judges ruled in favor of overturning the disorderly conduct conviction; four of five ruled in favor of reversing the conviction for disobeying a lawful command.
Appellate Judge Arlene Johnson, in writing the majority opinion, noted that municipal law states that a person who intentionally inhibits access to a building is guilty of disorderly conduct. Bell, however, did not block the entrance to the building nor prevent attendees of the black mass from entering the Civic Center. Instead, she knelt outside an exit to the building, which did not even have a handle to permit entrance. The municipal judge admitted in his decision that Bell did not block an entrance; however, he expanded the reach of the law to include loitering outside an exit. Bell's attorney argued, "You can't read the code broader than how it's written," a sentiment with which the appellate court agreed.
Of the conviction for failing to comply with a lawful order, the appellate court found that the order for Bell to leave public property, where she was not exhibiting disorderly conduct, was not, in fact, a lawful order. Because the order was not lawful, Bell was not violating municipal code by remaining on the premises and going limp when officers tried to arrest her.
Learn more about Oklahoma appeals here, or call 405-778-4800 to speak with an appellate lawyer about your case.
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