Sunday, August 5, 2018
The Fifth Circuit ruled in Seals v. McBee that Louisiana's statute that criminalizes "threats" is unconstitutionally overbroad in violation of the First Amendment. The ruling strikes the state law.
The case arose when officers arrested Travis Seals for an unspecified reason and claimed that Seals resisted arrest and threatened them (with physical harm and legal action). The DA declined to prosecute. Seals then filed a civil action against officers for malicious prosecution, conspiracy, and a First Amendment violation. In particular, Seals said that the Louisiana statute that criminalizes "threats" was unconstitutionally overbroad. (The statute criminalizes "public intimidation," defined as "the use of violence, force, or threats upon [specified persons, including public officers and public employees] with the intent to influence his conduct in relation to his position, employment, or duty.)
The court first ruled that Seals had standing to sue, even though the DA disavowed bringing charges (but also that the government could bring charges as late as December 2019):
Seals's position mirrors that of the plaintiffs in United Farm Workers. He already bet the farm. And when he violated Section 14:122, he was arrested. Louisiana has disavowed prosecution but concedes that Seals actually violated the statute and is legally subject to prosecution. Moreover, Louisiana has introduced evidence of other enforcement actions that are currently being pursued. Viewed alongside a review of Louisiana's caselaw, that evidence shows that Section 14:122 is not a mere paper tiger but has a real history of enforcement. Because the scales are at least as balanced as in United Farm Workers, Seals, too, has standing to challenge Section 14:122.
The court ruled next that the statute was substantially overbroad in violation of free speech:
"[H]ere the statute sweeps so broadly, encompassing any number of constitutionally protected threats, such as to boycott communities, to run against incumbents, and to sue police officers. Hence it is overbroad."