Did Reese Breach the Peace?

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I’m not a big movie guy but I’ve always liked Reese Witherspoon’s work. She’s versatile enough to play a spoiled rich kid, a country music singer, and a 50 foot animated woman. I chalk it up to her New Orleans upbringing, a city which has a little bit of everything.

Recently Witherspoon got to play the role of arrested celebrity. She and her husband, Jim Toth, were pulled over by Atlanta police. Toth was driving and the police said he was weaving in and out of lanes. According to police reports, Toth had a strong smell of an alcoholic beverage coming from his breath and his eyes were watery and blood shot. As the police were investigating Toth, Witherspoon decided it was time to play her “celebrity card”.

Reese asked one of the officers “Do you know my name?” Apparently the officer was not a fan of her work because he informed Reese that “no” he didn’t need to know her name. Reese stepped out of the car with a handful of her DVD’s to show the officer (author’s embellishment). The officer was apparently not in the mood to watch a movie and ordered her back in the car. Undaunted, Reese exited the car once again, this time playing a guitar and singing a June Carter Cash song. (author’s embellishment). The officer then arrested Reese at which time Reese informed the officer “You’re about to find out who I am … You are going to be on national news.” Well, she was right about that.

Witherspoon was charged with disorderly conduct. Her husband was arrested for DUI and blew a .139 even though he claimed he only had one drink. Reese has released the obligatory statement apologizing for her actions and expressing how much respect she has for police officers. I’m sure her career will survive this hiccup, after all she survived Legally Blonde II: Red, White, and Blonde. But what about the criminal charges?

In Mississippi, a person’s speech cannot be the basis for a disorderly conduct or breach of peace conviction unless the words used constitute “fighting words”. Fighting words are those words which which by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace. See Chaplinsky v. State of New Hampshire, 315 U.S. 568, 571-572 (U.S. 1942).

Police officers, however, are held to a higher standard with regards to what constitutes “fighting words”. In several United States Supreme Court cases, convictions have been thrown out where a person cussed at police officers using “F bombs”, “SOB”, and certain other words you cannot say on television. The Supreme Court has held that the First Amendment “protects a significant amount of verbal criticism and challenge directed at police officers.” Houston v. Hill, City of Houston v. Hill, 482 U.S. 451, 461 (1987). The Mississippi Supreme Court and Court of Appeals have followed the United States Supreme Court rationale in cases where spoken words form the basis of a criminal charge.

In Witherspoon’s case, her spoken words “don’t you know who I am?” do not rise to the level of fighting words. However, the prosecutor may focus the charge on her conduct of refusing to stay in the car. Conduct is not protected by the First Amendment since speech is not being regulated. However, the conduct must be something that actually constitutes “disorderly conduct”. Actions coupled with words can constitute a valid conviction for disorderly conduct and/or disturbing the peace.

So to recap: yes Reece, we know who you are but that doesn’t mean you are immune from being arrested; if you are stopped by a police officer the best course of action is to be polite and refrain from cussing; if you are arrested you need to call Chuck Mullins and Coxwell & Associates immediately! And I still think Sweet Home Alabama was Reece’s best movie.

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Disclaimer: This blog is intended as general information purposes only, and is not a substitute for legal advice. Anyone with a legal problem should consult a lawyer immediately.

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