People v. Aleem

Decision Date08 January 2007
Docket NumberNo. 06SA90.,06SA90.
Citation149 P.3d 765
PartiesThe PEOPLE of the State of Colorado, Plaintiff v. Shareef ALEEM, Defendant.
CourtColorado Supreme Court

John W. Suthers, Attorney General, Melody Mirbaba, Assistant Attorney General, Denver, Colorado, for the Trial Court.

K. Mark Burton, Denver, Colorado, for Defendant.

Justice BENDER delivered the Opinion of the Court.

I. Summary

In this original proceeding, we review the trial court's holding of Petitioner Shareef Aleem in criminal contempt and its sentence to forty-five days in county jail. Initially, the trial court held Aleem in contempt until he removed his Stanley Tookie Williams T-shirt. Thereafter, the court retracted its initial contempt by allowing Aleem to wear this T-shirt for the remainder of that day of trial. The court never warned that any of his other behavior at trial placed him in danger of being held in direct contempt. At the conclusion of the trial, the court ordered Aleem to show cause why he should not be held in contempt for failing to follow its order to remove his T-shirt. It set the show cause hearing for several weeks later.

At this hearing, the court held Aleem in contempt, citing his misbehavior as: (1) refusing to obey its order to remove his T-shirt; (2) arriving thirty-seven minutes late to court; (3) yelling and calling the court names such as "demonocracy"; and (4) orchestrating his supporters to stand and chant. The court allowed Aleem and his attorney to speak but stated that it had already decided the issue of contempt and that the only decision left was to determine Aleem's sentence. After pronouncing a sentence, the court denied a stay of execution. Aleem petitioned this Court under Rule 21 and we issued a rule to show cause and a stay of the sentence. We now make the rule absolute.

Aleem argues that the trial court's contempt finding and sentence should be vacated. He argues that: (1) wearing the Tookie Williams T-shirt is protected by the First Amendment and thus, a defense to contempt; and (2) the trial court abused its discretion when it held him in contempt for refusing to remove his T-shirt and for his other behavior at trial.

Although the T-shirt containing political expression is protected speech, we hold that this type of speech is not protected inside a courtroom. As the trial court stated, the courtroom is a place for the presentation of evidence and not for political expression. It is a non-public forum for First Amendment purposes. A court has the authority to restrict political speech within the courtroom to preserve its purpose as a forum for adjudication of civil and criminal disputes and to protect the parties' rights to a fair trial, and here, we conclude that the trial court's restriction on Aleem's speech was both reasonable and viewpoint neutral. Hence, the trial court's order to Aleem to remove his Tookie Williams T-shirt did not violate his First Amendment rights.

Although we recognize that it was within the trial court's discretion to order Aleem to remove his Tookie Williams T-shirt the trial court failed to follow appropriate contempt procedures and therefore, we vacate the trial court's contempt finding. We hold that the court abused its discretion when it held him in direct contempt for this and other behavior. We conclude that the trial court (1) failed to warn Aleem before holding him in direct contempt for behavior that was not extreme under Colorado Rule of Civil Procedure 107(a)(2) (2006); and (2) inconsistently ordered Aleem to remove his Tookie Williams T-shirt and then permitted him to wear it in front of the jury, such that it nullified any justification for its initial order to remove it.

Consequently, we make the rule to show cause absolute and reverse the trial court's contempt finding and sentence.

II. Reasons for Granting Writ

Aleem urges this Court to grant original jurisdiction pursuant to Colorado Appellate Rule 21 (2006) because he cannot pursue an adequate remedy through an appeal. He contends it would be fundamentally unfair to require him to serve his sentence without first having his judgment and sentence reviewed. We agree.

This Court has the discretion to determine whether to exercise original jurisdiction over a case pursuant to C.A.R. 21. C.A.R. 21(a)(1); Fognani v. Young, 115 P.3d 1268, 1271 (Colo.2005). Relief under C.A.R. 21 is extraordinary and therefore limited in purpose and availability. C.A.R. 21(a)(1); People v. Dist. Court, 790 P.2d 332, 334 (Colo.1990). We may only grant relief under C.A.R. 21 when the trial court has exceeded its jurisdiction or to review a serious abuse of discretion when appellate review would be inadequate. C.A.R. 21(a)(1); People v. Miller, 25 P.3d 1230, 1231 (Colo.2001).

Original jurisdiction is an appropriate means to review contempt orders. Halaby, McCrea & Cross v. Hoffman, 831 P.2d 902, 906 (Colo.1992); Losavio v. Dist. Court, 182 Colo. 180, 512 P.2d 266 (1973). This Court has exercised jurisdiction in a contempt case similar to the case at hand. In Losavio, a district attorney was held in contempt of court and sentenced to fifteen days in jail. Id. at 266. He filed a writ of prohibition in this Court to prevent the execution of the sentence and we issued a rule to show cause ultimately vacating the contempt judgment. Id. Original jurisdiction is appropriate when a petitioner risks being further sanctioned for contempt if review is not granted. Halaby, McCrea & Cross, 831 P.2d at 906 (citing Losavio, 512 P.2d at 267). Original jurisdiction is appropriate in this case because Aleem has been sentenced to immediate incarceration stayed only upon our order. No adequate remedy is otherwise available.

III. Facts and Proceedings Below

Aleem's attire first became an issue on the second day of trial when the prosecutor objected that it impermissibly injected political issues into the trial. Aleem's T-shirt said "U.S. History 101" and had a picture of a white overseer whipping a black slave. The court ordered Aleem to remove the shirt to protect his and the People's right to a fair trial, stating that his T-shirt might improperly influence the jury. Aleem complied with the court order and changed his shirt.

The next day at trial, Aleem arrived thirty-seven minutes late wearing a T-shirt saying "Redemption" and depicting Stanley "Tookie" Williams, a black man who had been executed in California shortly before Aleem's trial. Upon objection by the prosecution that the T-shirt impermissibly introduced outside issues into the trial, the court ordered Aleem to remove his T-shirt. Aleem refused, stating that he wore the T-shirt for political reasons. After Aleem's fourth refusal to remove his shirt, the court held him in contempt and ordered him into custody.

Recognizing that both the prosecutor's objection to the Tookie Williams T-shirt and Aleem's refusal to remove it arise from its symbolic meaning, we must digress to explain its significance.1 The trial court's answer to the Order and Rule to Show Cause informs us regarding the political debate surrounding Stanley Tookie Williams. It states that it is common knowledge that Williams was convicted of murder, sentenced to death, and executed only a few months before Aleem's trial. Further, it notes that Williams received a great deal of media attention, was well-known to the public, and spurred political debate concerning the death penalty. Aleem argues that the image of Tookie Williams accompanied by the word "redemption" also has religious significance because redemption is a religious term that means "to be free from the consequences of sin."

The court, Aleem, and Aleem's attorney engaged in a long colloquy which spanned twenty-five pages of the record discussing the political meaning of this T-shirt and the court's reasons for ordering Aleem to remove it. The tone of this discussion was one of escalating frustration. While the court continually asserted its duty to maintain the order and decorum of the courtroom, Aleem remained adamant that he was being singled out for unfair treatment and that he should be able to exercise his rights as a political advocate.

During this discussion, Aleem argued that he was a political activist and said he would not change the clothes that he wears every day, stating that he did not feel that he "should be forced to change [his] attire to [be in court] and put on some monkey suit or something out of character with who [he is]." Aleem then accused the court of discriminating against his T-shirt's particular message. He said that the court would allow shirts advocating mainstream political positions in the courtroom. He accused the judge of hiding behind the podium and called the court a "demonocracy." As he was being taken into custody he warned, "if anything happens to me in your custody . . . the People will be held accountable for this" and "I know what you devils is about."

The court responded to Aleem's arguments stating that a courtroom is not a place for political activism, but for the presentation of evidence. It informed Aleem that its job is to protect his and the People's right to a fair trial and that it was within the court's authority and discretion to make sure that nothing interfered with the integrity of the criminal process. The court stated that the problem with the T-shirt was what it "potentially says to the jury" because it could be an "improper influence on [them]."

The court also explained that it would require others to remove clothing with other political messages if the attire was brought to its attention or the subject of an objection. As an example the court stated that if the prosecutor was wearing a tie with a political symbol on it, "I'd say, you need to go change your tie."

This colloquy was interrupted at one point when the court ordered that Aleem be taken into custody. While Aleem...

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