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Criminal defense based on free speech prevails in federal court

by | Aug 10, 2018 | criminal defense

Like every state, Louisiana has some criminal laws that are too arcane or too oppressive to have credible authority. One such law has been identified, challenged and declared unconstitutional by three separate federal court opinions, including one from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit. That court, on Aug. 3, ruled that the state law that makes it a crime to “threaten” a public official is overly broad and unconstitutional. The criminal defense to prosecution under the infirm law was based on freedom of speech.

The federal appeals court explained that the meaning of the word threat in the context of communicating with public officials can mean threatening to sue an officer or challenge an elected official, or to do any other number of things that are actually perfectly legal. The decision affirmed two prior district court judges, in their separate rulings in 2017, that Louisiana’s public intimidation law is unconstitutional. The law is a felony, and it carries a maximum penalty of five years of hard labor.

The challenges to the law were raised in two separate arrests where the criminal suspects told police officers that they were going to get the officer fired or that they would get the officer’s job. The Louisiana Attorney General appealed a ruling from a district court judge in New Orleans to the 5th Circuit, where he argued that the law was narrow enough to be enforced. The appellate court judges clearly disagreed with that interpretation.

The three-judge federal panel explained that the law encompasses a lot of legal free speech activity within its overly broad ambit. Where a criminal defense can be successfully based on a constitutional principle, as in this case, the results will have a broad effect way beyond just freeing the accused from the scar of a criminal conviction. It will abound to the benefit of many others because the law cannot be used to stifle free speech ever again, barring an appeal and reversal by the U.S. Supreme Court.