Smirking teen battering ‘Back the Blue’ sign is no hate crime, Robert Gehrke writes

Garfield’s county attorney has twisted the law and abused the power of his office

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

If smirking is a hate crime, I’m in real trouble.

So I’m watching with keen interest a case out of Garfield County, an absolute travesty and nationwide embarrassment that could have profound repercussions on smirkers everywhere.

It’s the case involving a 19-year-old woman from California, who had been camping in Southern Utah and was heading home when one of the cars her group was traveling with was stopped for speeding at a Panguitch gas station.

In a statement Wednesday, County Sheriff James Perkins, said the deputy who made the stop, Cree Carter, did not ticket the car for speeding (although the young woman told The Daily Beast that Carter was aggressive toward them and did write a ticket).

Either way, she was upset, and when Carter looked over, he saw her stomping on a “Back The Blue” sign nearby. According to his affidavit, he saw her “crumble it up in a destructive manner and throw it into a trash can all while smirking in an intimidating manner towards me.”

The sheriff said his deputy was “attacked,” even though the young woman didn’t touch the deputy. She didn’t even threaten him. In fact, there’s nothing in Carter’s affidavit or the sheriff’s statement to indicate she did anything to him but smirk.

Carter asked her where she got the sign and, based on the affidavit, she probably lied — said it belonged to her mom in California, which Carter doubted because he believed it was a sign printed by the county.

So he went into the gas station and asked if it was theirs, which it wasn’t. He questioned her further and she said she had found the sign laying on the ground, at which point he arrested her for “destroying property that did not belong to her” — although he never established who it belonged to — and doing so “in a manner to attempt to intimidate law enforcement.”

That attempt to intimidate, in Carter’s mind and evidently the county attorney’s warranted a hate crime enhancement meaning this 19-year-old could face up to a year in jail.

There’s another way to look at this.

If the sign wasn’t taken from someone else — and there’s no evidence thus far that it was — then she didn’t commit a crime, she exercised a Constitutionally protected right to free speech. And frankly she did so in a way that didn’t hurt anyone except maybe Deputy Carter’s feelings.

There’s no legal requirement to be nice to police. Orem City found that out after a police officer cited a man who had given him the middle finger. The city acknowledged it was a free expression and paid the man a settlement for violating his Constitutional rights.

Still, this case and another in Garfield County — in which the county charged a man who used pink spray paint to change one of the sacred signs to read “Back the Bisexual” (the charge was later dropped) — have groups like the ACLU questioning the adequacy of Utah’s hate crimes law.

“This kind of charging decision sends an extremely chilling message to the community that the government will seek harsher punishment for people charged with crimes who disagree with police actions,” the group said in a statement. “We consistently warn that enhancements are oftentimes used to single out unpopular groups or messages rather than provide protections for marginalized communities. This case has confirmed those warnings.”

The issue isn’t so much with the law itself. It was meant to be open-ended, an attempt to find a way to protect minorities from acts of violence and intimidation, but also apply it to the majority. Theoretically, a terroristic act against an LDS church would be treated the same as the same act against a mosque.

It was meant to protect people like the Latino tire shop owner in Salt Lake City who was beaten because of his ethnicity, as well as a white Utahn who might be targeted for a crime because of race or religion.

Most importantly, it made passing the bill palatable to the Legislature which and extended a level of protection that didn’t exist under the prior, unworkable statute.

The real failure in this instance wasn’t the way the law was structured. I’m not even going to place the blame on Carter, who perhaps thought he was the victim of a hate crime.

The failure is Garfield County Attorney Barry Huntington, who seems to not have bothered reading more than five lines into the statute.

Because the law says the act has to “intimidate or terrorize” an individual with the intent of “causing a person to reasonably fear to freely exercise or enjoy any right secured by the Constitution or laws of the state or by the Constitution or laws of the United States.”

Was there a right that Deputy Carter was not able to “freely exercise or enjoy”? His right to be a police officer, perhaps? He seems to have exercised or enjoyed that right just fine when he put this woman in handcuffs and arrested her.

Rather than using common sense, Huntington twisted the spirit and letter of the law and abused the power of his office. As a result, Huntington’s next job will likely be negotiating how much county taxpayers will have to give the wrongly accused woman to compensate her for this abuse.

And perhaps Garfield County sheriff’s deputies should consider adding a string of pearls to their uniform. They’ll be handy for clutching next time a teenage girl intimidates them — and I say that with a definite smirk.