Trial Court Focused Too Much on Racial Slurs by Defendant Towards Police Officers

Start at People v. AraujoCalifornia Court of Appeal, Justice Anthony Kline and Justices James Richman joined Justice Therese Stear in deciding Tuesday that the matter was a no contest.

As Sergeant Peruzzaro tried to explain no warrant was required and warned she would be arrested if she obstructed the investigation, Araujo continued yelling the same things, as well as something like “die you fucking pigs, 187 on a cop,” which officers understood as a reference to the Penal Code section for homicide…. Araujo began to throw stones at Peruzzaro and hit his arm with his other hand. She continued her down the hall shouting obscenities at Detective Stewart, an African American officer, who was right in front.

Araujo was resisted by Teixeira, Stewart, and Teixeira who tried to place her hands behind her back in order to handcuff her. Stewart then said, “Fucky nigger!” Araujo refused to be handcuffed. She turned her body to the left, squeezed their fingers and kicked on them. Stewart was even grabbing his crotch. Stewart was called “nigger” over 30 times. She also called him “porch monkeys” several times and said that he needed to return to Africa.

Araujo started screaming as the officers began to remove her from the house. She put her hand on the holster of Teixeira’s gun; he slapped it away ….

Araujo did not target Teixeira with his racial insults during the struggle. Araujo was called a “chink” by Officer Wong after he noticed spit flying everywhere and striking the detectives.

Araujo was convicted of the three felonies of resisting or attempting to deter an executive officers in the discharge of their duty through violence or threats after a 2008 trial. An allegation of hate crimes attached to Officer Stewart was found untrue by the jury.

On January 16, 2009, the trial court suspended imposition of sentence and placed Araujo on three years’ probation, with conditions including that she serve 45 days in county jail…. The probation department claimed that Araujo had violated her probation. She failed to comply with reasonable instructions from the probation officer during routine probation searches. Araujo’s brothers and mother opposed the routine probation search that probation officers were conducting on Araujo. Araujo shouted at officers, accusing them of harming her mother and when an officer pulled her arm towards her, continued her march toward the officers. Araujo disregarded repeated instructions to stop moving and called the probation officers a “bitch” while calling the police officers repeatedly “pigs.” …

Araujo admitted the violation and the court revoked probation, then immediately reinstated it under the previously imposed terms and conditions, with the additional condition that Araujo serve 60 days in county jail with 45 days credit for time served….

Section 17, subdivision (b), outlines the conditions in which “wobbler”, offenses like Araujo’s can either be treated as felonies, or as misdemeanors. [including retroactively] …..” A trial court has broad discretion in deciding whether to reduce a wobbler to a misdemeanor. When exercising its discretion, it must consider the circumstances and nature of the offense as well as the defendant’s attitudes and appreciation of the crime. It also has to take into account his character and his demeanor during the trial. …

Araujo contends the trial court abused its discretion by denying her motions due to the “disgusting language” she used in the commission of her offenses, thereby improperly punishing her for speech that is protected by the First Amendment …. She correctly points out that the caselaw is extremely protective of the right to free expression, even when the speech at issue is highly offensive to others and particularly when it is directed at police officers…. [T]he Supreme Court has recognized that “even the ‘fighting words’ exception … might require a narrower application in cases involving words addressed to a police officer, because ‘a properly trained officer may reasonably be expected to exercise a higher degree of restraint than the average citizen, and thus be less likely to respond belligerently to fighting words.'” [Examples of cases protecting vulgar insults of police officers omitted. -EV] …

Araujo concedes that her conduct in 2008—including struggling, spitting, and hitting officers—was not solely verbal and her physical conduct was not protected by the First Amendment. Araujo was also threatening violence …. [In the decision refusing to retroactively downgrade the offense to a misdemeanor]Araujo claims that Araujo’s offensive and racially-charged words were all used by the court and prosecutor to describe her crimes and resulted her being denied her motions.

Araujo supported Araujo in his description of Araujo and the court’s focus. The prosecutor’s written opposition argued, “considering that the victim suffered no physical injuries and no one was actually sexually assaulted or harmed, these are some of the most vile facts … this author has had to put into print. She is clearly the kind of person who believes she can leverage hundreds or even thousands of years of pain and trauma from others in order to gain advantage in cases where she is in the wrong. While directing the most offensive, racist, and hateful word in modern times at a black police officer she also perpetrated violence on him and others. This was an extension of her behavior in which she pointed out African American college students and staff, screaming racist epithets at them and making public remarks about their race.

“But, the defendant was not done. “But the defendant wasn’t done.” She next accused another black officer, and others of rape. The situation was clear and unambiguous. In an attempt to get some advantage over the situation, she devalued the trauma, experience and pain of real sexual assault victims and rape survivors by saying that officers sexually assaulted, raped, and beat her. She also falsely accused a man of sexual assault and rape, which is a common practice in the United States. It is clear that she tried to intimidate officers by accusing a black man of rape and sexual assault.

Finally, she tried to claim that her probation office was attacked by an ex boyfriend, which caused a facial scar. She attempted to tap into some trauma that may or may not be there, to hurt her probation officer….”

[Likewise, a]At the hearing, Araujo was not referred to by the prosecutor; instead her remarks were focused on Araujos words as well as lack of remorse. The prosecutor stated that the prosecution was referring to Araujo’s physical conduct. Her remarks only addressed Araujo’s words and lack of remorse.[T]The facts surrounding this crime trigger a visceral response in everyone who hears them. It is some of the most disgusting language …. The woman wasn’t using the language in a hard-‘R” fashion. [¶]This country is going through a major reckoning when it comes race and racism, and the way we deal with that. We’re in a time where we’re considering—or actually tearing down statutes [sic] of people who have had … awful records of race from hundreds of years ago. [¶]”The passage of time doesn’t forget or forgive Araujo for his actions in this instance.”

Araujo’s words were also a focus of the trial court when referring about the offenses. It explained its decision by saying, “The underlying offense is beyond disgusting.” Her disgusting and vile language was not only directed at law enforcement officers. [descent]. [¶]This isn’t an isolated event. CSM College of San Mateo. She also showed disgust at any African-American she encountered. {“The written opposition [had] briefly related two incidents in which Araujo used racial epithets against individuals she encountered at the College of San Mateo (CSM): On January 29, 2008, she became irate at an African-American security guard who asked her to use the proper stairwell and called him a “stupid fucking nigger,” and on February 5, 2008, without provocation, she called an African-American student “Fucking monkey, jiggaboo and nigger.”} …

This focalization is alarming. Araujo’s use of racially charged words was highly offensive. But this offensive language was not the basis of her criminal conduct except as it defined the circumstances in which the conduct underlying her conviction occurred…. This was the court’s main focus [on this language]This supports Araujo’s assertion that by denying her motions the trial court actually punished her speech, which is not outside of constitutional protection.

Araujo’s use of offensive language is a concern for other reasons. Another reason is that there are strong signs in Araujo’s record that Araujo could have been suffering from mental illness or psychological problems. [Details omitted. -EV] … The sentencing court saw Araujo as having “a problem controlling her immediate thoughts. When she feels attacked or angry, many of her thoughts are colored with racist epithets. However, she can also say other horrible things that are not necessarily motivated by racism to others. …

It is also noteworthy that Araujo’s two CSM offenses and the subsequent probation violation in May 2008 occurred within less than four months. The record reflects no offenses since, perhaps consistent with the psychologist’s suggestion that Araujo was in a particularly extreme state of distress at that time….

[T]The prosecutor focused on Araujo’s use of racial language, explicit and implicit portrayal of her as unambiguously racist. [also]Clearly, this is in direct contradiction to the jury’s verdict and sentencing judge’s nuanced findings at trial. Araujo’s extreme racial speech would suggest that the jury did not believe the verdict. [as to the hate crimes charge] means at least some jurors were swayed—at least to the point of finding a reasonable doubt—by Araujo’s defense that her conduct was not due to bias but an expression of anger and attempt to protect herself from what she believed was excessive use of force by the police….

It appears that Araujo was denied Araujos motions largely due to the court’s view regarding her racist speech. In announcing their ruling, the court said that “I cannot think of anyone who is less deserving of a motion reduce or dismiss.” This statement is clearly exaggerated: Araujo’s use of racial epithets aside, [attempts to resist an executive officer by means of threats or violence]The most grave offenses that a person could commit are those where there is no weapon or resulting injury. Many defendants do not receive any further criminal sanctions for more than 10 years. In light of the court’s further remarks— that the underlying crime was “beyond disgusting,” Araujo used “vile and disgusting language” against law enforcement officers of color, and this was consistent with her conduct toward African-Americans she encountered at CSM—it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the trial court’s abhorrence for Araujo’s offenses was due primarily to the language Araujo used and inference of racial animosity the court drew from it.

The court exaggerated evidence from prior incidents that involved what appears to be racist speech supports this conclusion. The court referred to evidence from CSM that showed the February 2008 incident which led to convictions was not “one-off.” [Araujo]CSM she had “the same reaction to” and the disgusting behaviour towards. By broadly generalizing evidence showing incidents with two African-American individuals at CSM shortly before the February offenses to “any African-American” Araujo saw, the court expressed a view that Araujo’s use of offensive racial language was part of her character….

To be clear, we are not saying the court was required to ignore Araujo’s language, which was extraordinarily offensive and surely contributed to the tension and volatility of the situation…. Araujo did not request permission from the trial court. Araujo’s offenses were very serious and her performance on probation not exemplary, at least at the beginning….

However, the trial court had to exercise its discretion impartially in light all relevant facts that affected Araujo’s motions. A court abuses its discretion if its decision is based on impermissible factors or an incorrect legal standard…. [T]The court seems to have been heavily influenced in its consideration of motions by Araujo’s use of Spanish during offenses as well as in incidents just weeks before the offenses. Inferences were also drawn 10 years later from Araujo’s usage of that language.

It is not possible to conclude that the trial court exercised its discretion in an impartial manner and took into account all the circumstances. The orders are reversed and we remand for consideration of the motions. “The comments of Judge Garratt raise a reasonable question about the validity” [she]can act impartially in this instance,” the next proceedings shall be conducted with a different judge.