Meridian, Idaho -- Police accountability activist Matthew Townsend no longer faces a prison term over a Facebook post -- but the Ada County Prosecutor's Office may yet find a way to put him behind bars.
Roughly a year ago, as previously reported by The Free Thought Project, Townsend was charged with felony witness intimidation for a Facebook post in which he promised to wage a "non-violent and legal shame campaign" in the event a charge of resisting and obstructing was not dropped following a preliminary hearing on the following day. The March 18, 2015 Facebook post mentioned Corporal Richard Brockbank of the Meridian Police Department, the arresting officer, who had confronted Townsend while the latter was conducting a sidewalk protest in front of a tax preparation business.
Brockbank claimed that Townsend had been jaywalking, although his official incident report did not describe that offense. After a brief conversation in which the officer tried to browbeat Townsend into admitting to the offense, Townsend demanded that Brockbank either charge him or let him go. When Brockbank refused to respond, Townsend shrugged and walked away, as was his legal right. Without legal cause or justification, Brockbank arrested Townsend for "resisting and obstructing."
"I'm hoping that the REAL reason I was harassed to begin with will be released by the State rather than I," Townsend wrote, clearly anticipating -- against all reasonable expectations, given that the witness was employed in a truth-aversive occupation -- that Officer Brockbank would testify freely, fully, and truthfully. "If my case isn't dismissed tomorrow upon my request, I will begin a non-violent and legal shame campaign that will be remembered...."
That statement was not a threat of criminal violence, but a candid statement of a citizen's intent to protest abuses he had suffered and to seek redress of grievances. It was recognized as such by District Judge James Cawthon during the March 19, 2015 preliminary hearing.
“While it is concerning what the state is alleging, what I don’t hear is any threats related to any type of physical harm, violence, things of that nature, to the officer involved in this case, or his family," Cawthon ruled in response to a motion by the prosecution that Townsend be taken into custody (emphasis added).
Rather than ordering that Townsend be taken into custody, Judge Cawthon issued an order setting up a hearing on March 30 and requiring the State "to file that motion and have it served no later than Monday the 23rd."
If that adversarial hearing had been allowed to occur, the matter would almost certainly have ended there.
Under Idaho case law, Townsend could have explicitly made a personal threat against Brockbank without that act being defined as "witness intimidation" unless clear evidence existed that his intent was to prevent the officer from testifying "fully, freely, and truthfully." On that understanding, in 2007 the Idaho Supreme Court overturned the witness intimidation conviction of a man who threatened an officer who had arrested him on a domestic violence charge. In 2011, the state Supreme Court overturned another conviction in a case involving an armed assault by the suspect against a witness in a narcotics trial; once again, the central issue was the lack of evidence that this action -- which involved a very serious crime -- was carried out for the purpose of "affecting future testimony."
Townsend's antagonists knew they were riding a weak case. This is why, instead of complying with Judge Cawthon's order, the Ada County Prosecutor's Office sought, and obtained, an arrest warrant from a different judge on the following day, pointedly refusing to disclose Cawthon's ruling and order dealing with the matter. This led to Townsend's after-dark arrest later that Friday evening -- which would have led to a weekend in jail and the loss of his job had his mother not managed to obtain bail.
Townsend's felony trial was scheduled to begin on January 19. It ended in a mistrial after Assistant Ada County Prosecutor James Vogt objected to defense attorney Aaron Tribble's passing reference to the fact that Townsend faced a felony charge.
Since March of last year, Townsend informs The Free Thought Project, "I have spent more than $10,000 on my legal defense. There is no doubt I could have won this case on appeal, and it's very likely that I would have won in a jury trial, too." Townsend points out that he received a personal message from a juror in his abortive January 19 trial "urging me to keep fighting for my rights."
As is so often the case, Townsend -- a man of modest means employed in the productive sector -- simply didn't have the financial resources to deal with a predatory prosecutor with essentially unlimited funds at his disposal.
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"I've been very blessed by people willing to help with the costs of this case, but I've also had to move out of my home, and I'm an hourly employee who can't keep taking time off from work," Townsend points out. "Because of the financial demands of my trial I've lost my house."
Under the terms of the deal with the prosecutor, Townsend pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor charges. He will serve two years of unsupervised probation and was given an 180-day jail sentence, 179 days of which were suspended. He was also hit with a $1,000 fine, with half of that sum suspended.
The contrived felony charge -- which carried a maximum sentence of five years in state prison and a $50,000 fine -- was dismissed with prejudice. However, the Meridian PD and the Ada County Prosecutor's Office might still be able to arrange for Townsend to spend half a year in jail -- if he comes within eyeshot of his supposed victim, Meridian PD Corporal Richard Brockbank.
Shortly after Townsend was arrested on the "witness intimidation" charge, the Ada County DA obtained a three-year order of protection forbidding him to have any contact with Brockbank, or come within 100 yards of him. The urgent attention displayed by the DA in this matter contrasted sharply with the indifference she exhibited several months later when Meridian resident Makaela Zabael-Gravatt twice sought protective orders after receiving explicit, credible death threats from Christopher Wirfs, a man who had a violent criminal history. Last September, after twice being refused protection by the County Prosecutor's office or the Meridian PD, Zabael-Gravatt was shot and nearly killed in her own home by Wirfs.
According to domestic violence counselor Jeannie Strohmeyer, the likeliest explanation for the denial of Zabael-Gravatt’s request for a protective order was that there was no “domestic relationship” between her and the aggressor, and she wasn’t able to cite an incident of physical harm – including “false imprisonment.”
Ironically, while it is certainly true that Townsend was not in a domestic relationship with Officer Brockbank, there was a history of violence between them, specifically false imprisonment. In this case, however, it was the perpetrator of the criminal violence who immediately received an order of protection, owing entirely to his privileged status under what we are supposed to pretend is the law.
In the service of the official fiction that Townsend’s rhetoric victimized a member of the state’s punitive priesthood, Ada County Deputy Prosecuting Attorney James Vogt composed two sophistry-laden motions. In one, an objection to a defense motion to dismiss, Vogt insisted that by criticizing Officer Brockbank on Facebook, Townsend had committed an act directly comparable to a cross-burning carried out by the Ku Klux Klan.
Vogt’s second exercise in Olympic-caliber dishonesty was an objection to a defense Motion in Limine. Since Townsend’s statement was a form of political dissent, that defense motion contended, it is protected by the First Amendment and cannot be construed as a criminal act, so it shouldn’t even be entered into evidence.
In his objection, Vogt wrote that Townsend’s statement that he was prepared to conduct non-violent, legal protests in Brockbank’s neighborhood constituted a “true threat” – owing to the alleged “war on police.”
“Given the current political/cultural climate, Mr. Townsend’s message … [serves] as a real and true threat,” oozed Vogt in his objection. “His words are more threatening in an era where [sic] the police are under attack from civilians, battered, and killed in the line of duty.”
To document that assertion, Vogt's motion offered a footnote citing four news accounts of police being injured or killed. Two of them described minor injuries suffered by officers in the course of their not-exceptionally-dangerous jobs. Two others were high-profile stories of supposed martyrs in the so-called “war on police”: Lt. Joe Gliniewicz of Fox Lake, Illinois, and Deputy Darren Goforth of Harris County, Texas. Both died as a result of what the public was told were anti-police assassinations, and honored with the familiar Soviet-grade state funeral and saturation media coverage.
As previously reported by The Free Thought Project, Gliniewicz committed suicide as a desperate cover-up for a long criminal career in which he had embezzled from the local Police Explorers program, harassed and threatened female co-workers, and explored the possibility of a contract hit on a county official who was investigating the officer's illegal activities. Deputy Goforth wasn't assassinated by a "cop hater;" he was murdered -- horribly -- by a mentally ill man whose derangement is so severe that he may not have recognized the victim as a law enforcement officer. At the time of the shooting, Goforth -- a married father -- was not carrying out official duties, but rather en route to an assignation with his mistress, a woman who has been involved with several other deputies from the same department.
Despite the fact that he has done nothing to injure or threaten Corporal Brockbank, Townsend could be arrested and charged if their paths happen to cross at any point over the next three years.
"I've been a police accountability activist here for many years," Townsend points out. "That order of protection places me in direct danger of imprisonment if I peacefully exercise my rights, or, for that matter, if I happen to run into Brockbank while simply going about my business. I can't feel safe anywhere in Meridian or Ada County -- and yet somehow I'm threatening him?"
In keeping with the preferred procedures of its disreputable profession, the Ada County Prosecutor's Office was able to arrange punishment without proving the offense.