Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Iowa Court of Appeals notes "the remarkable versatility of the word sh*t"

In this opinion (State v. Landis) filed by the Iowa Court of Appeals, the court had to consider whether there was sufficient evidence at trial to support the conviction of the defendant-prisoner for spraying a correctional officer with feces in violation of  Iowa Code section 708.3B (which makes it a felony for inmates to assault prison employees with "blood, seminal fluid, urine, or feces").

The prosecution offered two types of evidence at trial; eyewitness testimony that the defendant sprayed a substance that looked, "felt" and smelled like feces and a statement by the defendant himself following the incident in which he said "I got you, [correctional officer]. I threw shit on you.”

Although the defendant argued that the state failed to prove its case because it didn't call an expert witness to establish that the substance in question was in fact feces, the appellant court concluded that the ability to identify feces is within the province of the average person:

Indeed, it would be a rare person who had no personal experience with feces. We do not believe the identification of feces falls solely within the domain of expert testimony. Upon submission of the evidence, the jury was to decide whether the State had proved the elements of the crime charged and could use their common sense and daily experiences in determining whether the brown substance was feces.
. . . .
Paraphrase of an old adage seems apropos under the circumstances: If it looks like feces, if it smells like feces, if it has the color and texture of feces, then it must be feces. No witness with a degree in scatology was required, nor was scientific testing required to establish the fact the substance was feces. Thus, Landis‟s conviction for assault on a correctional officer with a bodily fluid was supported by sufficient evidence.

With respect to the defendant's argument that his statement "I threw shit on you" was insufficient, by itself, to support his conviction, the court agreed noting the ambiguity of that word in a very detailed footnote:

“Shit” is defined as excrement. Webster‟s Third New Int‟l Dictionary 2098 (1993). But, the word has also been defined as nonsense, foolishness, something of little value, trivial and usually boastful or inaccurate talk, and a contemptible person. Id. This now ubiquitous word has acquired numerous popular usages apart from its literal meaning. It has been used to describe people, places, and things and to express a wide variety of emotions such as disappointment, disgust, despair, resignation, amazement, awe, shock, anger, and surprise. For examples, see State v. Vance, 790 N.W.2d 775, 784 (Iowa 2010) (“He is going to find the shit . . . .”); Estate of Harris v. Papa John’s Pizza, 679 N.W.2d 673, 676 (Iowa 2004) (“[S]hould be on his „shit list‟ . . . .”); Civil Service Commission of Coralville v. Johnson, 653 N.W.2d 533, 541 (Iowa 2002) (“You ain‟t going to be shit.”); Wilson v. IBP, Inc., 558 N.W.2d 132, 143 (Iowa 1996) (“[T]his guy‟s full of shit.”); Marks v. Estate of Hartgerink, 528 N.W.2d 539, 542 (Iowa 1995) (“It takes a lot of guts and shit . . . .”); State v. Anderson, 448 N.W.2d 32, 34 (Iowa 1989) (“[W]hat‟s this not guilty shit.”); Knox v. Municipal Court of City of Des Moines, 185 N.W.2d 705, 709 (Iowa 1971) (“You are still a Fascist and your swastika (indicating) Heil Harrison, Heil Harrison and all that shit.”); Graves v. O’Hara, 576 N.W.2d 625, 627 (Iowa Ct. App. 1998) (“We have f**king shit to haul . . . .”); State v. Shortridge, 555 N.W.2d 843, 845 (Iowa Ct. App. 1996) (“Holy shit, let‟s get out of here . . . .”); Peck v. Employment Appeal Board, 492 N.W.2d 438, 439 (Iowa Ct. App. 1992) (“[A]sking what „shit jobs‟ were available.”); State v. Findling, 456 N.W.2d 3, 7 (Iowa Ct. App. 1990) (“I mean this is really big shit here.”); Wiysel v. William Penn College, 448 N.W.2d 712, 713 (Iowa Ct. App. 1989) (“[H]is words were so much „sanctimonious shit.‟”); and Blong v. Snyder, 361 N.W.2d 312, 314 (Iowa Ct. App. 1984) (“[They] told him the pieces he had run were all „shit.‟”). The remarkable versatility of the word “shit” is also demonstrated in George Carlin‟s “Filthy Words,” a verbatim transcript of which is set forth in full in the appendix to the United States Supreme Court‟s opinion F.C.C. v. Pacifica Foundation, 438 U.S. 726, 752-53, 98 S. Ct. 3026, 3042, 57 L. Ed. 2d 1073, 1094 (1978).

State v. Landis may be the last and best word on the inherent ambiguity of "sh*t." Read the full decision here.

Hat tip to Chris Wren.


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