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City of Houston, Texas v. Hill

    Brief Fact Summary. Appellee Raymond Hill observed a friend blocking traffic to allow a vehicle to enter traffic. Appellee also observed the police confronting his friend about his actions, and at that time Appellee yelled to the police to “pick on someone their own size.” Appellee was then indicted, but never convicted under a Houston ordinance prohibiting verbal challenges to police officers. Appellee now seeks to have that ordinance declared unconstitutional.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. A law is unconstitutional if it criminalizes a substantial amount of free speech and gives the police unconstitutional discretion in enforcement.

    Facts. Appellee, observed a friend intentionally stopping traffic on a busy street in Houston, to allow a vehicle to enter traffic. Two Houston police officers then confronted the friend of the Appellee, and when one named Officer Kelley began talking to him, Appellee began shouting at the officers in an admitted attempt to divert Officer Kelley’s attention from his friend. Appellee shouted at Officer Kelley to pick on someone his own size, to which Officer Kelley asked Appellee if he was interrupting his duties as a police officer. Appellee then stated that yes he was, and shouted to Officer Kelley to once again pick on someone his own size. Appellee was then arrested under a Houston ordinance that prohibited “willfully or intentionally interrupting a city policeman by verbal challenge during an investigation.” Appellee was acquitted after a nonjury trial in municipal court. Following his acquittal, Appellee brought a suit in District Court seeking judgment that the ordinance was un
    constitutional on its face and as applied to him. The District Court held that Appellee’s evidence did not demonstrate that the ordinance had been unconstitutionally applied. The Court of Appeals reversed, causing the City of Houston, Texas to appeal to the United States Supreme Court.

    Issue. Whether the Houston ordinance inhibits the free expression of ideas protected by the First Amendment?

    Held. Yes. Houston’s ordinance criminalizes a substantial amount of constitutionally protected speech, and accords the police unconstitutional discretion in enforcement. The ordinance’s plain language is undoubtedly violated everyday, yet only some individuals, chosen by the police at their discretion, are arrest. Therefore the ordinance is substantially overbroad.

    Dissent.
    Believes that the Court should not have reached the merits of the constitutional claims, just certified the decision of the Texas Appeals Court. But, nonetheless this dissent in part agrees with the decision of the Court, but like the concurrence disagrees with the Court’s use of the case Lewis v. New Orleans.
    Does not believe that the Houston ordinance, in the absence of an authoritative construction by the Texas courts, is unconstitutional.
    Concurrence. Does not agree with the reasoning of the Court, which used Gooding v. Wilson and Lewis v. City of New Orleans as support for the decision.

    Discussion. This case stands for the idea that an ordinance, statute, or other regulation must be sufficiently specific as to prohibit only lawless conduct, and not protected speech. This case also stands for the idea that a regulation will be held constitutional if the regulation affords too much discretion for the agency charged with regulating it, here the city police department of Houston. In fact this decision states that police officers must show some restraint in their actions because the preservation of individual liberties, in the face of some expressive disorder is of paramount importance. The remaining question following this case is when does the level of expressive disorder become so great that it allows the police to restrict individual liberties.


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