Threats in the Line of Duty: Police Officers and the First Amendment in State V. Valdivia and Connecticut V. Deloreto

Article excerpt

The relationship between civilian and police officer occupies a unique position in First Amendment jurisprudence. The Supreme Court has intimated that words intended solely to harass ("fighting words"), excluded from First Amendment protection under Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, may enjoy broader tolerance when the only listener is a police officer. (1) Some state supreme courts have adopted this dual standard when applying their state harassment laws, due to a trained police officer's higher tolerance for verbal provocation, as well as the societal interest in expressing dissatisfaction with police behavior. (2) When speech constitutes a "true threat" on a citizen's person, however, neither federal courts nor many states have found that the First Amendment calls for a higher tolerance for law enforcement victims than for civilians. (3)

In 2001, however, the Hawaiian Supreme Court found just such an individualized standard. In State v. Valdivia, it overturned the trial court's refusal to instruct that a victim's status as police officer was relevant to whether a defendant's threat to kill the victim constituted terroristic threatening. (4) Last year, the Connecticut Supreme Court explicitly rejected the Valdivia analysis and held, in Connecticut v. DeLoreto, that no higher standard should protect true threats when made to police. (5) The court stated that, while officers' training to resist provocation might warrant a narrower definition of unprotected "fighting words" when directed at them, they should be protected to the same degree as civilians from "serious expressions of intent to harm." (6) The Connecticut Supreme Court's decision is a positive shift from the dangerous ruling in Hawaii, which singled out the profession most commonly endangered by criminal violence for a lower degree of protection under the law.

I. CONNECTICUT V. DELORETO

A. Facts and Procedural History

In June of 2000, appellant Dante DeLoreto was involved in two separate incidents in which he threatened Connecticut police officers with bodily harm. During the first, on June 9, he drove by Sergeant Robert Labonte, who was off-duty and jogging, and made the statement "Faggot, pig, I'll kick your ass." (7) DeLoreto drove past Labonte on two other occasions--on the second, he shouted, "I'm going to kick your ass, punk" and on the third, he got out of his car and again shouted, "I'm going to kick your ass." (8) The incident ended with no physical altercation. On June 15, DeLoreto encountered Sergeant Andrew Power in a local convenience store. Power believed that DeLoreto was attempting to read his nametag, and said, "If you're trying to read my name, I'll tell you my name." (9) DeLoreto then stepped back and raised his fist, asking, "You have a problem with me?" As Power left the store, DeLoreto pursued him and stated, "I'm going to kick your punk ass." (10)

DeLoreto was charged with two counts of breach of the peace in the second degree in violation of section 53a-181(a)(3) of the Connecticut General Statutes. (11) He moved to dismiss on the grounds that the statute was vague and overbroad, and that, when directed at police officers, his statements were constitutionally protected speech. His motions were denied, as was his motion for a judgment of acquittal on the same grounds, and he was convicted on both counts. The trial court ruled that 1) the defendant's statements constituted fighting words and were not protected speech, and that 2) section 53a-181 of the Connecticut General Statutes is neither unconstitutionally vague nor overbroad. (12) DeLoreto appealed to the Appellate Court and his case was transferred to the Connecticut Supreme Court.

B. The Connecticut Supreme Court Decision

The Connecticut Supreme Court upheld DeLoreto's conviction, with Chief Judge Sullivan writing for the four-judge majority. The court began by stating that it need not address the appellant's claim that the Connecticut constitution bestows greater protection on "fighting words" than does the First Amendment, because it could dispose of the claim on the alternate ground offered by the state: that the defendant's statements constituted "true threats. …