Monday, April 21, 2014

A Monstrous Injustice

On Tuesday, we told the appalling story of Christian Stanfield, a 15-year-old kid with special needs who was, in effect, convicted of the crime of being bullied.

After reviewing the trial transcript, it’s clear that convicting this helpless kid of disorderly conduct was criminally dumb.

As first reported by, Christian, a sophomore at South Fayette High School who suffers from comprehension delay disorder (an information-processing disorder), ADHD, and an anxiety disorder, was subjected to treatment so cruel as to nearly defy description. He was regularly shoved and tripped, nearly burned with a cigarette lighter, and psychologically tortured by his peers. He fought back in the only way he could: by recording audio footage of the abuse during a math class on his school-issued iPad so that he could prove his story. Christian’s mother, Shea Love, submitted the recording to school administrators in the hopes of bringing an end to her son’s terror.

The response? An interrogation of Christian by Principal Scott Millburn and Lieutenant Robert Kurta, followed by a suspension from school and threats of being charged with felony wiretapping; Christian was ultimately charged with disorderly conduct, and he was found guilty by District Justice Maureen McGraw-Desmet on March 19.

Disgusting. And completely without foundation in Pennsylvania law.

Was Christian guilty of wiretapping? No! While Pennsylvania is one of the few states with a "two-party consent" rule when it comes to recording conversations, as the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has recognized, the speaker must have a reasonable expectation of privacy that his conversation will not be recorded before the issue of whether he has given consent comes into play. Clearly, nobody, much less a few teenage tyrants, would have a reasonable expectation of privacy with respect to statements made out loud in a classroom full of other students and a teacher.

Was Christian guilty of disorderly conduct? No! Pennsylvania law defines disorderly conduct as conduct that "(c)reates a hazardous or physically offensive condition by acts which serve no legitimate purpose."

As Lt. Kurta admitted during his testimony, Christian’s surreptitious recording did not create a hazardous condition. And, although Kurta testified that he found Christian’s conduct to be offensive, the statute provides that the behavior must create a "physically offensive condition," which was certainly not the case here. And, as for having a "legitimate purpose," memo to Lt. Kurta: a victim making a recording of the physical and psychological abuse he is undergoing so that responsible authorities (are there any at South Fayette?) will make it stop would strike most sentient human beings as constituting a "legitimate purpose."

Thankfully, the charges were dropped today by the district attorney—the first display of common sense by anyone in an official position thus far. But the decision to charge Christian with disorderly conduct was a shameful exercise of prosecutorial discretion, and should have been summarily rejected by the trial court. Christian’s ordeal represents a government failure on every level and his conviction was a monstrous miscarriage of justice. Speaking about the school’s administrators, Christian’s mother told, "Hopefully they will [apologize], but judging from past actions, I don’t think they will."

They'd better.

Original report here




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