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Woman released after spending 11 days in jail for cursing

Published 10:53am Monday, December 31, 2012

A woman jailed for cursing in a Niles courthouse is out on bond after spending 11 days in jail, including over Christmas.

LaRue Ford, 49, was released on Friday, according to Miriam Aukerman, one of several ACLU attorneys representing Ford.

“It is really very sad that Miss Ford spent 11 days in jail and missed Christmas with her family because of this situation,” Aukerman said. “It is exactly why our constitution is so important — no one should be spending time in jail for swearing out of frustration.”

Ford was charged with contempt when she was overheard using profanity in the clerk’s office at the Berrien County South County Courthouse Dec. 4.

On Friday, the ACLU filed an emergency application for leave to appeal with the Berrien County Circuit Court, asking the court to review the merits of Ford’s case and her bond situation.

Although Circuit Court Judge Al Butzbaugh told Ford’s lawyers he didn’t have time to review the merits of the case Friday because of the holiday, he did lower Ford’s bond.

Ford was then able to post bond and was released, Aukerman said.

Ford and her lawyers are waiting on the circuit court’s ruling of the underlying merits of the case.

“We don’t yet know when that court date would be,” said Aukerman Monday.

The situation began when Ford moved this year from Arizona to Indiana to look for a job closer to her family. Ford tried to get an Indiana driver’s license, but was denied because of an unpaid traffic fine of $444 out of Berrien County. When Ford paid the fine in November, Indiana still denied the license.

Ford made several attempts to discover the reason for the problem with the Niles courthouse, according to ACLU lawyer Megan Reynolds. Finally, she went to the Niles clerk’s office where it was discovered she needed to pay a $50 reinstatement fee. Ford then cursed in frustration as she left the office, Reynolds said.

When Ford returned to the clerk’s office about 20 minutes later to pay the $50, Reynolds said, a bailiff escorted her to the courtroom of Judge Dennis Wiley. There she was charged with contempt and placed on $5,000 bond.

Ford was released the next day after her sister posted 10 percent of the bond.

Ford appeared in court on Dec. 18 and asked Wiley if he could loosen her bond restrictions so she could visit family in Illinois over Christmas, Reynolds said.

Wiley denied Ford’s request and told her she’d have to come up with the full $5,000 bond, Reynolds said. Ford couldn’t post bond and was placed in jail.

Aukerman said it is unusual for a judge to change bond when a person shows up in court.

“Bond sometimes gets changed if a person doesn’t show up, and they get picked up on a warrant … she did exactly what she was supposed to do, which was stay in the area and return to court,” she said.

Auckerman said the ACLU is asking the court to dismiss the charges.

“People have a right to express their opinions and the U.S. Supreme Court has made it very clear that includes the use of profanity,” Auckerman said. “It may be disagreeable, but it’s protected speech and it’s no basis for criminal contempt.”

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