Thursday, September 10, 2020

Tales From The Crypt

The District of Columbia Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction of an attorney for destruction of property and contempt.

The facts

On October 31, 2018, at around 5:30 p.m. an evening mass was in progress in the crypt church at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, which is located at 400 Michigan Avenue, N.E. (“the Shrine”). Appellant entered the church “yelling” about the “need[] to restore the traditional mass.” Bryan Maynard, an agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigations who happened to be attending the mass, testified that appellant ran up towards the altar, denouncing the mass as “illegitimate,” using “expletives,” and telling “everybody to stop.” He then proceeded to walk straight up to the altar, knock over three candlesticks one by one, and head towards the officiating priest (at which point Maynard and others “moved forward to apprehend” appellant). As the candlesticks fell in succession, Maynard observed “debris fall,” and saw “bits of the brass or bronze, whatever the candlesticks were made of, breaking apart.” 

The officiating priest asked appellant to leave, but appellant continued to protest, prompting Maynard to head to the altar, grab appellant, and assist other churchgoers in “forcibly walk[ing] [appellant] from the crypt.” After Metropolitan Police Department officers arrived, they arrested appellant for destruction of property and unlawful entry. Appellant was ordered by the court to stay away from the Shrine as a condition of his release, and the head of Shrine security testified that a Shrine security officer issued appellant a barring order. However, Shrine security officers observed appellant return for masses on November 18, 2018, and November 25, 2018.  Appellant was charged with contempt of court for violating the stay away order on each occasion.

The defense

During his testimony, appellant — an attorney, who represented himself at trial accompanied by his “associate” (apparently, appointed standby counsel) — conceded that he “intentionally . . . toppled over” the candlesticks, but contended that he did so “very carefully” in such a way that they were “not harmed or broken at all.” With regard to the contempt charges, appellant conceded that he “returned twice to the National Shrine against the plain language of the stay away order” issued by the court on November 6, 2018. However, he argued that the stay-away order imposed against him violated RFRA because it “prevent[ed] a faith[ful] Roman Catholic from practicing his religion according to his sacred concepts.”

As to a hand being shackled at trial

we are satisfied that the error here does not warrant reversal of appellant’s convictions.

The stay away order did not violate his First Amendment rights

The trial court told appellant, “[N]obody’s saying you can’t practice your religion, they’re just saying at that particular place where you messed up, you can’t come back there for a while.” We have no trouble in recognizing that, while not saying so in so many words, the trial court found that appellant lacked a RFRA defense because he had not demonstrated that the stay away order substantially burdened his exercise of religion. We agree.

(Mike Frisch)

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