Polk v. State, 101

CourtCourt of Appeals of Maryland
Writing for the CourtHARRELL.
Citation378 Md. 1,835 A.2d 575
PartiesRhonda Michelle POLK v. STATE of Maryland.
Docket NumberNo. 101,101
Decision Date12 November 2003

835 A.2d 575
378 Md. 1

Rhonda Michelle POLK
STATE of Maryland

No. 101, Sept. Term, 2002.

Court of Appeals of Maryland.

November 12, 2003.

835 A.2d 576
Stacy W. McCormack, Assistant Public Defender (Stephen E. Harris, Public Defender, on brief), of Baltimore, for petitioner

Devy Patterson Russell, Assistant Attorney General (J. Joseph Curran, Jr., Attorney General of Maryland, on brief), of Baltimore, for respondent.



As the result of a contretemps at a hospital between Petitioner, Rhonda Michelle Polk, and a special police officer, Corporal Raymond Sperl, Polk was convicted of disorderly conduct in violation of Md.Code (1957, 1996 Repl.Vol., 2001 Supp.), Art. 27 § 121(b)(3) ("A person may not willfully fail to obey a reasonable and lawful order of a law enforcement officer made to prevent a disturbance to the public peace.")1 and resisting arrest. We agree with the Circuit Court for Wicomico County and the Court of Special Appeals that facts placed before the trial court were sufficient to support those convictions and, therefore, shall affirm the judgments.


On the afternoon of 8 June 2001, Polk, accompanied by her nine-year-old daughter, went to the Peninsula Regional Medical Center in Salisbury, Maryland. Polk previously worked as a secretary in the Hospital's Heart Center, but her employment had been terminated recently. She returned on this occasion to pick up her final pay check.

Polk first visited the Human Resources Department for her pay check, but was directed to go to the Heart Center. When she reached the Heart Center, she was told by her former supervisor, Shannon Brady, that her check was not at the Center and that she should return to Human Resources. Soon after Polk, muttering insults under her breath, left for Human

835 A.2d 577
Resources, Brady located the pay check. To avoid further interaction with Polk, Brady contacted Hospital security to have the check delivered to her at Human Resources

Corporal Raymond Sperl, a special police officer stationed at the Hospital for security, responded to Brady's request. He carried the check to Human Resources and there encountered Polk. When Polk asked him about the pay check, Corporal Sperl replied that he "ha[d] to take it to personnel." Polk responded, "[F]uck you, asshole." As the officer continued toward Human Resources with the check, Polk began "screaming," "[G]ive me my check." A Human Resources employee indicated to Corporal Sperl that he could give Polk the check. Polk snatched it from him, adding another, "[F]uck you, asshole." Corporal Sperl described the exchange that followed as Polk walked down a hallway toward a Hospital exit:

I said just keep your mouth quiet and leave. Again, [she responded] fuck you, asshole. I said I feel sorry for your child, she had a child with her. After I said I feel sorry for your child, she said fuck you, asshole. I said keep your mouth quiet and leave or I'm going to lock you up for disorderly conduct.

The officer also commanded Polk to "keep [her] mouth shut, stop [her] cursing, [and] just leave the property." Polk called Corporal Sperl an "old white baldheaded cop wannabe." In the course of their exchange, the Corporal stressed several times that "she'd be locked up [for disorderly conduct] if she didn't stop her profanity." When two women at the end of the hallway "heard the commotion," they walked away down another hallway. When Polk reached the Hospital exit, she turned toward the officer and shouted, "[F]uck you, asshole," once again as she passed through the doors.

Now outside, Polk's continuing tirade at Corporal Sperl "startled" a group of ten or fifteen Hospital employees standing nearby. Corporal Sperl escorted Polk toward the Hospital parking garage. Polk was "very irate" and "was letting [Corporal] Sperl know how irate she was" by "yell[ing] at him and curs[ing] at him." At one point, Polk abruptly stopped walking, causing the officer to step on the back of one of her "flip-flop" sandals and almost lose his balance. When the "vulgarity ... intensified," the Corporal announced that Polk was under arrest and attempted to apprehend her. He grabbed her shoulder, but she pulled away and bit his arm, breaking the skin on his wrist. During the scuffle, other security officers arrived and eventually subdued and arrested Polk.

Polk was charged with engaging in disorderly conduct in violation of Maryland Code, Article 27 § 121(b)(3) (1957, 1996 Repl.Vol. 2001 Supp.), resisting arrest, and second-degree assault in violation of Maryland Code, Article 27 § 12A (1957, 1996 Repl.Vol.).2 She was tried before a jury in the Circuit Court for Wicomico County on 28 November 2001. After the State presented its case-in-chief, Polk moved for a judgment of acquittal as to all of the charges, arguing that Corporal Sperl's initial orders to "stop cursing" were unlawfully directed at the content of her speech and that a "domino effect" made her subsequent arrest illegal. She

835 A.2d 578
maintained that, by using profanity toward the officer, she was engaging in protected speech. According to Polk, because she had not disobeyed a lawful police order and the officer had no reason to arrest her, she rightfully resisted the attempts to arrest her

The Circuit Court denied Polk's motion for acquittal. The judge concluded that Corporal Sperl's orders to "quiet down" constituted lawful orders to prevent a disturbance to the public peace. The orders, in his view, were directed at the volume of Polk's speech rather than its content. In this regard, the judge stated:

"[T]here is the testimony of Corporal Sperl that Ms. Polk was irate, was using profane language, and I think it's reasonable to infer from his testimony that she was doing so loudly because he told her on several occasions that she had to be quiet and he told her that if she wasn't quiet that he would place her under arrest for disorderly conduct.
"There is testimony from Corporal Sperl that two other people who were in the hallway at the time changed their direction to walk away from where he and Ms. Polk were located, and it may be that they just don't like hearing someone say fuck you, asshole, but it could have also been because of the fact they didn't like the volume of the language, as well as the content.
"And because of that possibility, in looking at it in the light most favorable to the State, I think I have to assume at this point that they walked away for reasons other than merely the content of it.
"There is also testimony from Corporal Sperl and from other people who [observed the incident outside the hospital's exit doors] that Ms. Polk was out of control at the point when she exited the building, was speaking in a manner which I think could be considered loud, Sperl said that it caught everyone's attention in [that area] when they left."

From these findings, the judge concluded that a reasonable fact-finder could find that Polk failed to comply with the officer's orders to reduce the volume of her voice.

The jury found Polk guilty of disorderly conduct and resisting arrest, but acquitted her of the assault charge. The trial judge merged the two convictions and sentenced Polk to 18 months incarceration, suspending all but 60 days.

Polk appealed. The Court of Special Appeals affirmed the judgments in an unreported opinion. Before that court, Polk again argued that the officer's orders were directed unconstitutionally at the content of her speech. The intermediate appellate court noted that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution "render[s] unlawful any order to refrain from profanity." Nonetheless, from the testimony that Polk was "irate," "yell[ing]," and "laps[ed] into... tirades of vulgarity," the court determined that she was "shouting when she cursed at [Corporal] Sperl." It determined, further, that the officer's orders to "keep [her] mouth quiet" sought to control the volume, rather than the content, of Polk's speech. Based on these determinations, the court concluded that a rational trier of fact could have found that "[Corporal] Sperl lawfully ordered [Polk] to quiet down, and that [she] ignored the order." Because Polk's challenge to the conviction for resisting arrest also was based on the illegality of the officer's orders the court held that, "that challenge must fail as well."

We granted Polk's petition for a writ of certiorari, Polk v. State, 372 Md. 429, 813 A.2d 257 (2002), to consider the following questions:

835 A.2d 579
1. Does an officer's order to "stop cursing" and "stop [your] profanity" constitute a "lawful order" to the extent that an individual's refusal to comply would be a violation of Maryland Code, Article 27 § 121(b)(3)?

2. If such an order is not "lawful" for purposes of Article 27 § 121(b)(3), was the evidence sufficient to sustain the appellant's conviction for disorderly conduct?

For the reasons explained below, we conclude that, Petitioner's framing of her issues notwithstanding, Corporal Sperl's orders directed toward the volume of Polk's voice were reasonable and lawful orders and the evidence indicating she failed to obey those orders was sufficient to support her convictions.

II. Standard of Review

In Moye v. State, we recently reiterated the standard of review for evaluation of the sufficiency of the evidence underlying a criminal conviction as:

whether any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crimes beyond a reasonable doubt. We view the evidence in a light most favorable to the prosecution. We give "due regard to the [fact finder's] finding of facts, its resolution of conflicting evidence, and, significantly, its opportunity to observe and assess the credibility of witnesses." Although our analysis does not involve a re-weighing of the evidence, we must determine whether the jury's verdict was supported by either direct or

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