Judge dismisses cursing lady casePublished 5:55pm Friday, January 11, 2013
ST. JOSEPH — Citing a procedural technicality, a Berrien County judge dismissed the case of a woman jailed for 11 days for cursing in the clerk’s office of a Niles courthouse.
Circuit Court Judge Charles LaSata said Friday court staff at the Berrien County South Courthouse didn’t follow the proper procedures when charging LaRue Ford, 49, with contempt of court on Dec. 4.
In his ruling, LaSata said court staff failed to provide a valid affidavit stating the facts upon which the charge was based.
The only charging document provided was a petition for contempt filed by Niles courthouse employee Sarah Belter stating Ford “used profanity in the clerk’s office on Dec. 4.”
Because the case was dismissed on a technicality, LaSata said Ford could still be prosecuted under Niles ordinances if the court wishes to submit a proper affidavit.
Miriam Auckerman, an ACLU attorney representing Ford, said she doesn’t believe the court will pursue charges, especially since Berrien County Prosecutor Art Cotter said he wouldn’t prosecute the case.
Judge Dennis Wiley, who charged Ford with contempt, could not be reached for comment.
“While we are thrilled that this terrible episode is behind Ms. Ford, we also recognize that she will never be able to get the nearly two weeks she spent in jail or Christmas with her family back,” Auckerman said.
Ford said she was happy to put the ordeal behind her.
“I knew God was on my side and he always gets the last word,” Ford said.
Although pleased with the court’s ruling, Auckerman said she was also disappointed LaSata didn’t address the ACLU’s concerns over the constitutionality of putting someone in jail for cursing.
“If free speech means anything, it means that you have the right to express yourself even when you are upset at the government,” she said. “If we arrest everyone who has ever been frustrated and used foul language, there would be more people in jail than walking our streets.”
In early December, Ford uttered profanities as she walked out of the clerk’s office frustrated while trying to clear up an unpaid traffic ticket issued in 2004.
Wiley charged Ford with contempt and set her bond at 10 percent of $5,000 on Dec. 4. Ford came up with the $500 and was freed.
Ford couldn’t pay the bond when Wiley raised it to the full $5,000 during another court hearing Dec. 18.
She spent the next 11 days in jail — including over Christmas — until her attorneys filed an emergency appeal to lower the bond. Berrien County Trial Court Judge Al Butzbaugh lowered the bond and Ford was released Dec. 28.
Ford’s lawyers filed a motion Tuesday for Judge Wiley to disqualify himself from hearing the case, but Wiley refused. At that point, the matter went to the appellate court in Berrien County.