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Inside the Criminal Case: Can a defendant be convicted for being ‘annoying?’

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Inside CC Bell GaerteIn 2012, the General Assembly amended Indiana’s public intoxication statute to provide, in part, that a person was guilty of public intoxication if the individual is intoxicated “in a public place” and “annoys … another person.” Indiana Code §7.1-5-1-3(a)(4). But what constitutes “annoying?”

The Supreme Court of the United States once noted that “[c]onduct that annoys some people does not annoy others.” Coates v. Cincinnati, 402 U.S. 611, 614 (1971). Sometimes the wives of the authors of this article find us annoying when we deem ourselves to be objectively hilarious. If publicly intoxicated, can a police officer’s annoyance really result in the criminal conviction of another? The recent case of Morgan v. State addresses this issue.

Rodregus Morgan was thought to be drunk before he fell asleep at an Indianapolis bus shelter on Ohio Street. Morgan v. State, No. 49A02-1304-CR-386, 2014 Ind. App. LEXIS 51 at *2-3 (Ind. Ct. App. Feb. 13, 2013). Morgan and his brother were the only two occupants of the shelter, and his brother was yelling at Morgan in order to wake him up. Id. at *2. The commotion attracted the attention of Officer Garner, an off-duty police officer working private security for the bus company, but who was nonetheless dressed in an Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department uniform. Id. at *1-2.

Officer Garner approached Morgan and noticed that Morgan was exhibiting signs of being intoxicated. Id. at *3. Garner also noted that Morgan was “unsteady on his feet” and his “behavior was annoying.” Officer Garner therefore arrested Morgan for public intoxication. Id. After being handcuffed, Morgan continued to yell at Officer Garner asking him if “he was ‘happy with [himself] for locking a brother up’” and insisted that he would kick Officer Garner’s “ass just like he did in high school.” Id. at *3-4. However, Garner and Morgan had not, in fact, been classmates. Id.

The public intoxication statute, as applied to Morgan, makes it a Class B misdemeanor if a person is intoxicated while in public and “harasses, annoys or alarms another person.” Indiana Code §7.1-5-1-3(a)(4). On appeal, Morgan argued that the term “annoy” is unconstitutionally vague in that there is no objective definition of what conduct is proscribed and that the term allows for arbitrary or discriminatory enforcement. Morgan at *6. In response, the state argued that “a person of ordinary intelligence would know that lying drunk in a public bus shelter … would annoy others” especially in conjunction with that person’s refusal to move when asked to do so. Id. at *9.

Personally, the authors of this article have walked past this particular bus shelter on numerous occasions and have never been annoyed by the conduct of others. However, we have never asked anyone to move from the bus shelter. Furthermore, no one has ever declared that we have “ordinary intelligence.”

On review, the Court of Appeals found that the statute was unconstitutionally vague. Id. at *15. The appellate court cited three reasons for this determination: First, the statute does not require a defendant’s specific intent to annoy. Id. Second, it does not use an objective standard to assess whether a defendant’s conduct was annoying. Id. Third, the statute did not mandate that the defendant be warned that his behavior was annoying. Id. As a consequence, the statute allows for arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement “because the illegality of any conduct – no matter how trivial or how substantial – is based solely on the subjective feelings of a particular person at any given time.” Id. Therefore, according to the Court of Appeals, a Hoosier may not be convicted under the subjective standard of “annoying.”•

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James J. Bell and K. Michael Gaerte are attorneys with Bingham Greenebaum Doll LLP. They assist lawyers and judges with professional liability and legal ethics issues. They also practice in criminal defense and are regular speakers on criminal defense and ethics topics. They can be reached at jbell@bgdlegal.com or mgaerte@bgdlegal.com. The opinions expressed are those of the authors.

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  1. The practitioners and judges who hail E-filing as the Saviour of the West need to contain their respective excitements. E-filing is federal court requires the practitioner to cram his motion practice into pigeonholes created by IT people. Compound motions or those seeking alternative relief are effectively barred, unless the practitioner wants to receive a tart note from some functionary admonishing about the "problem". E-filing is just another method by which courts and judges transfer their burden to practitioners, who are the really the only powerless components of the system. Of COURSE it is easier for the court to require all of its imput to conform to certain formats, but this imposition does NOT improve the quality of the practice of law and does NOT improve the ability of the practitioner to advocate for his client or to fashion pleadings that exactly conform to his client's best interests. And we should be very wary of the disingenuous pablum about the costs. The courts will find a way to stick it to the practitioner. Lake County is a VERY good example of this rapaciousness. Any one who does not believe this is invited to review the various special fees that system imposes upon practitioners- as practitioners- and upon each case ON TOP of the court costs normal in every case manually filed. Jurisprudence according to Aldous Huxley.

  2. Any attorneys who practice in federal court should be able to say the same as I can ... efiling is great. I have been doing it in fed court since it started way back. Pacer has its drawbacks, but the ability to hit an e-docket and pull up anything and everything onscreen is a huge plus for a litigator, eps the sole practitioner, who lacks a filing clerk and the paralegal support of large firms. Were I an Indiana attorney I would welcome this great step forward.

  3. Can we get full disclosure on lobbyist's payments to legislatures such as Mr Buck? AS long as there are idiots that are disrespectful of neighbors and intent on shooting fireworks every night, some kind of regulations are needed.

  4. I am the mother of the child in this case. My silence on the matter was due to the fact that I filed, both in Illinois and Indiana, child support cases. I even filed supporting documentation with the Indiana family law court. Not sure whether this information was provided to the court of appeals or not. Wish the case was done before moving to Indiana, because no matter what, there is NO WAY the state of Illinois would have allowed an appeal on a child support case!

  5. "No one is safe when the Legislature is in session."

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