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Brewington case focuses First Amendment attention on Indiana

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Daniel Brewington is either a poster child for the wrongful prosecution of free speech or a man whose online rants about a judge constituted criminal threats. It all depends on your point of view.

After almost two years in the Department of Correction, Brewington was freed Sept. 5, just days before the Indiana Supreme Court heard oral arguments on whether to formally grant transfer in his case. Brewington had done his time for a Dearborn County jury’s conviction of intimidation, perjury and obstruction of justice stemming from blog posts he made criticizing a judge who stripped him of joint custody of his children.

apb_brewington01-15col.jpg Attorneys Eugene Volokh, left, and Michael Sutherlin prepare for a moot court argument Sept. 11, a day before presenting oral arguments in the Indiana Supreme Court on behalf of Daniel Brewington in Brewington v. State. (IL Photo/Aaron P. Bernstein)

“Tell any person on the street what happened to me,” Brewington said outside court chambers after oral arguments Sept. 12, “and the first thing they say is, ‘that’s a violation of free speech.’”

At the center of the case are posts on family court blogs in which Brewington took aim at Dearborn Circuit Judge James Humphrey, who presided in his custody case. The posts for which Brewington was prosecuted included comments that Humphrey was a child abuser for stripping Brewington of custody and that Humphrey was playing with fire and Brewington was “an accomplished pyromaniac.”

Inside the courtroom, Brewington’s case drew First Amendment scholar Eugene Volokh to argue on behalf of a dozen amici who feared that if the Brewington verdict affirmed by the Court of Appeals stands, it would represent a chilling effect on speech, opinions expressed in the media and political speech.

“I think the whole country wants this court to accept transfer,” Brewington’s attorney Michael Sutherlin told the court, noting a spectrum of amici in the court from the ACLU of Indiana to Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum, along with numerous media, speech and academic interests.

The state argued, though, that Brewington had failed to preserve the constitutional arguments, and that in its consideration of granting transfer, the justices should narrow the inquiry. At any rate, the state says Brewington made true threats against a judge and his conviction and sentence should stand.

“Not only is it invited error, he also has waived his claims,” Indiana Attorney General Chief Counsel Stephen Creason said of Brewington’s appeal raising constitutional issues.

“This court should not take cases merely to resolve issues when they’re not properly presented and properly developed. It should not take cases to decide broad issues of constitutional law outside the context and the facts of a particular case. That’s the situation presented here.”

Creason said Brewington had been convicted for the totality of a torrent of real threats and veiled threats that caused Humphrey to be placed in fear of retaliation for a prior lawful act, but he acknowledged the Court of Appeals decision was overbroad. “It reached questions it should not have reached,” he said, conceding that a selective reading of the opinion could be used to justify criminal prosecutions of protected speech.

Justices quizzed both sides about the proper scope of their inquiry. Chief Justice Brent Dickson and Justice Robert Rucker appeared to wrestle with whether the constitutional questions could be reached procedurally and whether such arguments were properly preserved in the trial court.

Dickson also said the jury’s general verdict, which did not specify what parts of Brewington’s speech constituted intimidation, “was essentially invited by Mr. Brewington or his counsel.”

Sutherlin said legal counsel’s ineffectiveness during Brewington’s jury trial amounted to fundamental error. “This court and every court, its intent, its focus, is to do justice,” he said. He noted Brewington’s public defender essentially put on no case and “spent all of 45 minutes talking to him before this trial.”

The intimidation statute in question, I.C. 35-45-2-1, includes not just threats of violence or harm to a person, but also threats that “expose the person threatened to hatred, contempt, disgrace or ridicule.”

“The state, the defendant and amici all agree,” Volokh argued, “the Court of Appeals erred in its First Amendment analysis.” He suggested that the COA had left open the possibility that political criticism or commentary could be treated as a criminal act at the discretion of a prosecutor.

“There are hundreds of blogs out there of dissatisfied fathers and they’re saying the same thing,” criticizing the family law system, Sutherlin argued. “Dan Brewington never had a face-to-face discussion or conversation or threat to Judge Humphrey.”

“This has been an inflammatory attack on Dan Brewington,” Sutherlin said in regard to the blog comment in which Brewington called Humphrey a child abuser. “Here’s the context: Anybody who takes away my right to visit my children is abusing my children. That’s the context of the statement.”

Sutherlin noted Mitt Romney’s son made a remark during the 2012 presidential election in which he said he’d like to punch President Obama, and a member of Congress shouted “liar” at the president during the State of the Union address. Sutherlin said those instances were properly regarded as hyperbole, but they might not have been under the COA analysis.

The fundamental error argument seemed to gain traction with Justice Mark Massa, who pressed Creason on why the doctrine shouldn’t apply.

“It’s reserved for issues that make the fair trial impossible,” Creason said of fundamental error.

Creason also said Brewington’s threats didn’t have to be a threat to injure, and that even veiled threats that place someone in fear of being injured are criminal.

“You’re talking about a very, very big door,” Justice Steven David responded. But Creason said unlike an off-the-cuff remark, Brewington’s remarks were “well-considered and made over time.”

Massa and David focused their inquiries toward Creason on the “fear of retaliation” language.

“It’s an expression that subjects you to fear for having done a prior lawful act. … It’s the fear that you’re being retaliated against for something you have the right to do,” Creason said, explaining what constitutes a threat considered criminal in nature under the statute.

David had a quick reply: “Isn’t that the objective, indirectly if not directly, of every blogger, every commentator? I’m struggling with where your line is.”

Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller issued a statement the day of the Brewington arguments urging the justices to affirm the trial court. “The state contends the defendant’s right of self-expression does not include the right to threaten violence or harm against a judge or any other person,” the statement said.

Brewington, meanwhile, won’t be blogging for some time. Now a resident of Ohio, he said terms of his probation prohibit him from posting on blogs or social media.•
 

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  • Ridiculous
    This is ridiculous, an obvious retaliation all too common in these kangaroo courts today. Thousands are wishing Dan Brewington well.
  • A hard case ,,,,
    Hard cases are not usually the best for making good laws. Heckfire, in Indiana one need not issue any threat to get in lots of hot water for speaking of the judiciary. See the poll on the left to sound off about the dangerous trend afoot.

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  1. He TIL team,please zap this comment too since it was merely marking a scammer and not reflecting on the story. Thanks, happy Monday, keep up the fine work.

  2. You just need my social security number sent to your Gmail account to process then loan, right? Beware scammers indeed.

  3. The appellate court just said doctors can be sued for reporting child abuse. The most dangerous form of child abuse with the highest mortality rate of any form of child abuse (between 6% and 9% according to the below listed studies). Now doctors will be far less likely to report this form of dangerous child abuse in Indiana. If you want to know what this is, google the names Lacey Spears, Julie Conley (and look at what happened when uninformed judges returned that child against medical advice), Hope Ybarra, and Dixie Blanchard. Here is some really good reporting on what this allegation was: http://media.star-telegram.com/Munchausenmoms/ Here are the two research papers: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0145213487900810 http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0145213403000309 25% of sibling are dead in that second study. 25%!!! Unbelievable ruling. Chilling. Wrong.

  4. Mr. Levin says that the BMV engaged in misconduct--that the BMV (or, rather, someone in the BMV) knew Indiana motorists were being overcharged fees but did nothing to correct the situation. Such misconduct, whether engaged in by one individual or by a group, is called theft (defined as knowingly or intentionally exerting unauthorized control over the property of another person with the intent to deprive the other person of the property's value or use). Theft is a crime in Indiana (as it still is in most of the civilized world). One wonders, then, why there have been no criminal prosecutions of BMV officials for this theft? Government misconduct doesn't occur in a vacuum. An individual who works for or oversees a government agency is responsible for the misconduct. In this instance, somebody (or somebodies) with the BMV, at some time, knew Indiana motorists were being overcharged. What's more, this person (or these people), even after having the error of their ways pointed out to them, did nothing to fix the problem. Instead, the overcharges continued. Thus, the taxpayers of Indiana are also on the hook for the millions of dollars in attorneys fees (for both sides; the BMV didn't see fit to avail itself of the services of a lawyer employed by the state government) that had to be spent in order to finally convince the BMV that stealing money from Indiana motorists was a bad thing. Given that the BMV official(s) responsible for this crime continued their misconduct, covered it up, and never did anything until the agency reached an agreeable settlement, it seems the statute of limitations for prosecuting these folks has not yet run. I hope our Attorney General is paying attention to this fiasco and is seriously considering prosecution. Indiana, the state that works . . . for thieves.

  5. I'm glad that attorney Carl Hayes, who represented the BMV in this case, is able to say that his client "is pleased to have resolved the issue". Everyone makes mistakes, even bureaucratic behemoths like Indiana's BMV. So to some extent we need to be forgiving of such mistakes. But when those mistakes are going to cost Indiana taxpayers millions of dollars to rectify (because neither plaintiff's counsel nor Mr. Hayes gave freely of their services, and the BMV, being a state-funded agency, relies on taxpayer dollars to pay these attorneys their fees), the agency doesn't have a right to feel "pleased to have resolved the issue". One is left wondering why the BMV feels so pleased with this resolution? The magnitude of the agency's overcharges might suggest to some that, perhaps, these errors were more than mere oversight. Could this be why the agency is so "pleased" with this resolution? Will Indiana motorists ever be assured that the culture of incompetence (if not worse) that the BMV seems to have fostered is no longer the status quo? Or will even more "overcharges" and lawsuits result? It's fairly obvious who is really "pleased to have resolved the issue", and it's not Indiana's taxpayers who are on the hook for the legal fees generated in these cases.

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