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Bennett v. St. Louis County

Court of Appeals of Missouri, Eastern District, First Division

December 19, 2017

MELISSA V. BENNETT, and KOACH BARUCH FRAZIER F/K/A REBECCA L. FRAZIER, Appellants,
v.
ST. LOUIS COUNTY, MISSOURI, and PETER JAY KRANE, Respondents.

         Appeal from the Circuit Court of St. Louis County, Honorable Gloria Clark Reno.

          KURT S. ODENWALD JUDGE.

         Introduction

         Melissa V. Bennett and Koach Baruch Frazier (collectively "Appellants") appeal from the trial court's dismissal of their complaint, which alleged that St. Louis County Ordinance Section 701.110 (the "Ordinance")[1] was unconstitutionally vague and overbroad. The Ordinance makes it unlawful to in any manner interfere or obstruct a police officer or other County employee in the performance of his or her official duties.

         Appellants raise three points on appeal, each of which implicates the protections of freedom of speech guaranteed under the United States and Missouri Constitutions. Point One challenges the constitutionality of the Ordinance as proscribing a substantial amount of constitutionally protected speech. Point Two contends that the Ordinance is unconstitutionally vague because it contains multiple undefined terms and phrases, and permits arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement. In Point Three, Appellants claim that the Ordinance is overbroad because its unclear language outlaws a substantial amount of constitutionally protected First Amendment speech. We conclude that the Ordinance is neither unconstitutionally overbroad nor unconstitutionally vague under both the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article I of the Missouri Constitution. Accordingly, we affirm the judgment of the trial court.

         Factual and Procedural History

         St. Louis County police officers arrested Appellants for violating the Ordinance while they were participating in an anti-police-brutality protest outside the Ferguson Municipal Police Department. The Ordinance makes it "unlawful for any person to interfere in any manner with a police officer or other employee of the County in the performance of his official duties or to obstruct him in any maimer whatsoever while performing any duty."

         St. Louis County charged Appellants with violating the Ordinance. Consequently, Appellants filed a complaint with the trial court alleging that the Ordinance was unconstitutionally vague and overbroad on its face, and later moved for a judgment on the pleadings. Appellants argued that the Ordinance was unduly vague in several respects. First, Appellants maintained the Ordinance used the terms "obstruct, " "interfere, " and "in any manner" to prohibit unlawful conduct toward a police officer without defining those terms, and without restricting those terms to physical conduct or limiting the Ordinance's application to a particular time or place. Appellants also challenged the Ordinance for lacking a scienter requirement. Further, Appellants reasoned that the Ordinance was substantially overbroad in its use of the terms "obstruct, " "interfere, " and "in any manner, " which effectively proscribed a substantial amount of protected free speech activity, including comments that may annoy, interrupt, or protest a police officer's activities. The trial court granted judgment in favor of St. Louis County, holding that the Ordinance is not facially unconstitutional. Appellants now appeal.

         Points on Appeal

         Appellants raise three points on appeal. In Point One, Appellants argue that the plain meaning of the Ordinance encompasses conduct protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.[2] In Point Two, Appellants contend that the Ordinance is unconstitutionally vague because it fails to provide fair notice of its application and encourages arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement. In Point Three, Appellants claim that the Ordinance is overbroad and in violation of the First Amendment and Article I, Section 8 of the Missouri Constitution, [3]because it outlaws vast amounts of protected speech.

         Jurisdiction

         Appellants challenge the constitutionality of a municipal ordinance. Although not raised by the parties, we have a duty to examine our jurisdiction sua sponte. Walker v. Brownel, 375 S.W.3d 259, 261 (Mo. App. E.D. 2012). If we lack jurisdiction to entertain the appeal, we must dismiss. Id.

         The Missouri Supreme Court has exclusive appellate jurisdiction in cases involving the validity of a state statute or a provision of the constitution of this state. Mo. Const. Art. V, § 3. However, the Supreme Court has determined that "[c]laims that municipal ordinances are constitutionally invalid are not within the exclusive appellate jurisdiction of this Court." Alumax Foils, Inc. v. City of St. Louis, 939 S.W.2d 907, 912 (Mo. banc 1997). "Under our constitutional scheme, [] the court of appeals has the jurisdiction initially to consider such issues on appeal." Id. Thus, we have jurisdiction over the validity and constitutionality of the Ordinance. See Damon v. City of Kansas City, 419 S.W.3d 162, 174-75 (Mo. App. W.D. 2013).

         Standard of Review

         We review the constitutionality of ordinances de novo. City of Sullivan v. Sites, 329 S.W.3d 691, 693 (Mo. banc 2010); St. Louis Ass'n of Realtors v. City of Ferguson, 499 S.W.3d 395, 398 (Mo. App. E.D. 2016). Ordinances are presumed valid and lawful. Coop. Home Care, Inc. v. City of St. Louis, 514 S.W.3d 571, 578 (Mo. banc 2017). Further, «[t]he party challenging the validity of the ordinance carries the burden of proving the municipality exceeded its constitutional or statutory authority." Id.

         Discussion

         Appellants dispute the constitutionality of the Ordinance. The Ordinance states as follows:

It is unlawful for any person to interfere in any manner with a police officer or other employee of the County in the performance of his official duties or to obstruct him in any manner whatsoever while performing any duty.

         Importantly, Appellants contend that the Ordinance is facially unconstitutional as written, and do not seek constitutional review under an "as applied" standard. A facial challenge to the constitutionality of the Ordinance is "the most difficult challenge to mount successfully, since [Appellants] must establish that no set of circumstances exists under which the [Ordinance] would be valid." United States v. Salerno, 481 U.S. 739, 745 (1987). An as-applied challenge, conversely, would require Appellants to argue that the Ordinance was unconstitutionally applied to their individual circumstances. See, e.g., Ohralik v. Ohio State Bar Ass'n, 436 U.S. 447, 462-63, 462 n.20 (1978). Appellants chose to make a facial challenge and not an as-applied challenge. Thus, we only review the facial constitutionality challenges to the Ordinance and need not discuss the specific facts of Appellants' arrests. See Salerno, 481 U.S. at 745 n.3.

         I. Points One and Three: Overbreadth

         In Point One, Appellants argue that the plain meaning of the Ordinance encompasses a substantial amount of constitutionally protected speech. Further, in Point Three, Appellants similarly contend that the plain meaning of the Ordinance, as written, prohibits a substantial amount of constitutionally protected content, and is therefore unconstitutionally overbroad. Because Appellant's Points One and Three both address overbreadth, we combine these points in our discussion below.

         A. The Overbreadth Doctrine Standard

         The overbreadth doctrine, born in First Amendment jurisprudence of the United States Supreme Court, New York v. Ferber, 458 U.S. 747, 768 (1982), recognizes that "it is better to invalidate laws that potentially could be construed to punish protected speech, even if those laws might be constitutionally applied, rather than to let such a law stand and chill protected speech." State v. Jeffrey, 400 S.W.3d 303, 308 (Mo. banc 2013). The overbreadth doctrine is limited to the First Amendment context. Id. When conduct is at issue, "the overbreadth doctrine has a[n even] more limited application." Id. at 311 (internal citations omitted).

         It is well recognized that courts will not invalidate an ordinance on its face "merely because it is possible to conceive of a single impermissible application." City of Houston v. Hill, 482 U.S. 451, 458 (1987) quoting Broadrick v. Oklahoma, 413 U.S. 601, 630 (1973) (Brennan, J., dissenting)). Instead, "in a facial challenge to the overbreadth and vagueness of a law, a court's first task is to determine whether the enactment reaches a substantial amount of constitutionally protected conduct." Hoffman Estates v. Flipside, Hoffman Estates, Inc., 455 U.S. 489, 494 (1982). Ordinances "that make unlawful a substantial amount of constitutionally protected conduct may be held facially invalid even if they also have legitimate application." Hill, 482 U.S. at 459 (citing Kolender v. Lawson, 461 U.S. 352, 359 n.8 (1983)). However, "[i]f the [ordinance] may fairly be construed in a manner which limits its application to a 'core' of constitutionally unprotected expression, it may be upheld against the charge that it is overly broad." State v. Carpenter. 736 S.W.2d 406, 408 (Mo. banc 1987) (Blackmar, J., dissenting) (cited with approval in State v, Moore, 90 S.W.3d 64, 67 (Mo. banc 2002)). "The mere possibility of erroneous application of the statute does not amount 'to the irreparable injury necessary to justify a disruption of orderly state proceedings.'" Cameron v. Johnson, 390 U.S. 611, 621 (1968) (quoting Dombrowski v. Pfister, 380 U.S. 479, 485 (1965)).

         B. Overbreadth Analysis of Similar Laws

         1. United States Supreme Court Precedent: Cameron and Hill

         Appellants and Respondents primarily rely on two United States Supreme Court cases to frame the issue regarding the facial constitutionality of the Ordinance. Although the laws discussed in Cameron and Hill are distinguishable, the analysis of both provide a cohesive framework-when coupled with the subsequent court cases-for evaluating the constitutionality of the Ordinance.

         In 1968, the United States Supreme Court reviewed the constitutionality of a Mississippi anti-picketing law. Cameron, 390 U.S. at 612. The statute provided, in pertinent part:

It shall be unlawful for any person, singly or in concert with others, to engage in picketing or mass demonstrations in such a maimer as to obstruct or unreasonably interfere with free ingress or egress to and from any public premises, State property, county or municipal courthouses, ... or other public buildings or property owned by the State of Mississippi, ... or so as to obstruct or unreasonably ...

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