For Ronald Strong and his lawyer, this appellate court opinion surely stunk.
A divided federal appeals court in Boston upheld Strong's conviction for misdemeanor property damage for his soiling of a small, single-occupant courthouse restroom in Portland, Maine. It was no accident, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ruled, 2-1, on July 19.
Strong raised two key issues: whether he willfully damaged courthouse property and whether the prosecution should have been barred because of the court's failure to prominently display conduct regulations at public entrances.
"The momentous importance of this case surely forecasts its deserved place in the annals of federal prosecutorial history," Judge Juan Torruella wrote in the opening sentence of his dissent, which, at 31 pages, ran slightly longer than the majority opinion.
The building conduct rules should have been posted at the courthouse entrance, not inside the clerk's office, Strong's lawyer, Katherine Essington, argued. And the First Circuit majority conceded that there's a General Services Administration Rule that requires such notices to be posted at public entrances.
But there's nothing in the regulation that says noncompliance voids a criminal conviction, Chief Judge Sandra Lynch wrote.
"The Secretary certainly has not said that those who violate the criminal regulations get a free pass because of a bureaucratic mixup," Lynch added, joined by Judge William Kayatta Jr. "The record is also more than sufficient to establish that Strong had the intent needed for conviction."
The statute, Lynch said, "merely requires posting of the regulations he violated in a conspicuous place on the property. They were so posted: they were conspicuously located on the wall next to the clerk's office door."
Under Strong's reading of the law, Lynch said, "if a building had multiple entrances and at all but one the posting was placed, an individual could avoid prosecution for committing a substantive offense even if he passed through one of the entrances with the posting. That could not have been intended."
By contrast, Torruella found persuasive Strong's argument that the public notice of conduct at entrances was a prerequisite. He added that believed Strong’s insistence that he didn't intentionally damage the bathroom at the Edward T. Gignoux U.S. Courthouse.
"[I]t was unreasonable to infer willfulness from the fact that Strong did not report the incident," Torruella said. "The reasonable inference to draw from this fact is that Strong was embarrassed of what had transpired."
During the bench trial, prosecutors noted that 75 percent of the bathroom floor had been soiled. In addition to property damage, Strong was also charged with creating a hazard on federal property and creating a nuisance. The majority noted that the court employee who had to clean up the mess had to dispose of her own clothes in a biohazard bag.
Essington, a solo practitioner in Providence, R.I., said via email that Strong "was convicted on an involuntary act on his part and without proper notice that his conduct" was criminal. (Strong, in his own defense, said at trial he was taking several types of medication and that he had a similar incident at a store several years earlier.)
"I think that the Court's ruling stands for the proposition that defendants can be convicted for violating federal statutes and/or regulations even when the government fails to comply with mandatory posting requirements and there is no evidence that the defendant had actual notice of the statute or regulation," Essington wrote. "This ought to be a concern to anyone who enters federal property."
The misdemeanor conviction cost Strong seven days in jail.
Mike Scarcella can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.