ST. JOSEPH — Different judge, different outcome.
That’s what it boiled down to Friday in Berrien County Trial Court in St. Joseph where Judge Charles LaSata, citing a technicality, dismissed a contempt of court charge against a woman who allegedly spouted profanity last month in the county clerk’s office at the South County Courthouse in Niles.
Technicality or not, LaRue Ford, 49, a former South Bend area resident now living in Illinois, left no doubt she was pleased to have the misdemeanor behind her.
“I’m happy,” she said, referring to the past month as “grueling” and “tiring.”
Eleven days during that period were spent in the county jail, including Christmas, after county Trial Court Judge Dennis Wiley raised Ford’s 10 percent $5,000 bond — $500 — to the full $5,000. It was “heartbreaking,” Ford said, that she wasn’t able to be home for the holidays.
The strange case, made even stranger this week when county Prosecutor Art Cotter declined to prosecute Ford on the court’s behalf, had its roots in a traffic ticket Ford received 8½ years ago on Michigan 139 near Benton Harbor. During what was called Ford’s interlocutory appeal on Friday before LaSata, the judge said Ford never paid the ticket and thus faced a $444 fine when she traveled to the county courthouse in Niles on Dec. 4 to settle the ticket in order to obtain a commercial driver’s license.
A dispute over an additional reinstatement fee led to Ford’s profanity, LaSata said. Because it occurred in the clerk’s office and not in Wiley’s courtroom, LaSata termed Wiley’s subsequent decision to charge Ford with contempt of court an example of “indirect contempt.”
There’s no case law in Michigan for a finding that using profanity in front of a judge’s staff is the same as using it in the presence of a judge, LaSata said. Also, he said such a charge must be supported by an affidavit, or a sworn statement in which witnesses spell out facts of the case. Because such an affidavit was lacking, LaSata dismissed the charge.
The judge did so without prejudice, meaning the charge could be reinstated with the proper documentation or a different charge — disturbing the peace? — could be sought asserting violation of a Niles city ordinance. But Miriam Aukerman, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union who represented Ford, termed such a filing “highly unlikely,” particularly given a letter Cotter wrote to Wiley expressing “serious doubts” regarding a conviction.
Aukerman said, too, that while she would have preferred that LaSata dismiss the case based on constitutionality, it’s typical for a judge to follow a safer route. She had no trouble expressing her view on the issue of profanity.
“It’s absolutely clear individuals cannot be thrown in jail for swearing,” she said. “If that were the case, our jails would have more people inside of them than outside.”
As for whether Ford will file a suit seeking damages against the county, Aukerman said she’ll discuss that possibility with her client later. Lawsuit or not, Ford said she has no regrets.
“I knew God was on my side. He has the last word,” she said.