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Armfield v. United States

December 5, 2002

BEN W. ARMFIELD, APPELLANT
v.
UNITED STATES, APPELLEE



Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (M-10982-00) (Hon. Zinora M. Mitchell-Rankin, Trial Judge)

Before Terry and Steadman, Associate Judges, and Nebeker, Senior Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Terry, Associate Judge

Argued May 8, 2002

Appellant Ben Armfield was convicted of disrupting the House of Representatives, in violation of D.C. Code § 9-112 (b)(4) (1995). *fn1 On appeal he contends (1) that the statute is unconstitutional as applied to him because it violates his right to free speech and to petition the government under the First Amendment; (2) that the statute is unconstitutional because it violates his right to equal protection and due process of law under the Fifth Amendment; (3) that the government presented insufficient evidence to support his conviction; and (4) that the prosecutor made two improper comments during closing argument that prejudiced his defense. We affirm.

I.

On September 14, 2000, appellant went to the visitors' gallery of the House of Representatives in the United States Capitol. At that time the House was in session, debating an appropriations bill for the District of Columbia. Officer Ryan Schauf, a member of the Capitol Police, noticed appellant as he entered the gallery and took a seat in the first row. From prior experience, the officer suspected that appellant was going to attempt to make a statement from the gallery. Officer Schauf approached appellant and asked whether he was going to disrupt the session; appellant replied, "I don't know yet."

A few minutes later, when the House was voting on the appropriations bill, appellant told Officer Schauf that he was "going to do it now." Appellant then "stood up or started to stand from his chair and yelled out 'Mr. Speaker, Mr. Speaker.' " Despite warnings from Officer Schauf telling him to sit down and be quiet, appellant continued to speak in a loud voice for about a minute. The Speaker of the House heard appellant, as did another Capitol Police officer standing 100 feet away. The Speaker went to the rostrum, struck his gavel, and requested that the Sergeant at Arms restore order in the gallery. Appellant then fell silent. Officer Schauf escorted him out of the gallery and placed him under arrest.

Appellant testified that he had planned to make a statement immediately after the House vote on the District of Columbia appropriations bill in order to protest the fact that District residents do not have voting representation in Congress.

He said that he did not intend to disrupt the proceedings, but expected instead to wait for a pause in the proceedings after the vote was "officially over." He admitted, however, that the voting might still have been going on when he made his "statement" from the gallery. Appellant also admitted that he "wanted [his] message to be heard" by all the members of the House who were present.

II.

A. The First Amendment Claim

Appellant contends that the statute prohibiting the disruption of either House of Congress is unconstitutional as applied to him because he is a citizen of the District of Columbia, unrepresented by a voting member of Congress, who has a right to petition Congress under the First Amendment. Section 9-112 (b)(4) makes it unlawful for any person "willfully and knowingly . . . to utter loud . . . language, or to engage in any disorderly or disruptive conduct, at any place . . . within any of the Capitol Buildings with intent to impede, disrupt, or disturb the orderly conduct of any session of the Congress or either House thereof . . . ." According to appellant, the statute violates his First Amendment right to petition Congress and to voice his opinion when Congress is enacting legislation for the District of Columbia.

He maintains that the gallery of the House of Representatives should be open to the citizens of the District for public comment when the House is considering legislation related to the District. We cannot accept such an argument.

The First Amendment states, "Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." U.S. CONST. AMEND. I. While the Supreme Court has recognized that "[t]he right of free public discussion of the stewardship of public officials . . . [is] a fundamental principle of the American form of government," New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 275 (1964) (footnote omitted), this right is not without limits. In particular, when someone claims the right to speak in a public place, "[t]he crucial question is whether the ...


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