State v. Helfrich

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Montana
Citation277 Mont. 452,922 P.2d 1159
Docket NumberNo. 95-333,95-333
PartiesSTATE of Montana, Plaintiff and Respondent, v. Richard HELFRICH, Defendant and Appellant. . Heard
Decision Date02 May 1996

Page 1159

922 P.2d 1159
277 Mont. 452
STATE of Montana, Plaintiff and Respondent,
Richard HELFRICH, Defendant and Appellant.
No. 95-333.
Supreme Court of Montana.
Heard May 2, 1996.
Submitted May 16, 1996.
Decided August 9, 1996.

[277 Mont. 453] Edmund F. Sheehy, Jr.; Cannon & Sheehy, Helena (argued), for Appellant.

Joseph P. Mazurek, Attorney General, Carol Schmidt, Asst. Attorney General (argued), Helena, Brad Newman, Deputy Silver Bow County Attorney, Butte, for Respondent.

LEAPHART, Justice.

Richard Helfrich (Helfrich) appeals from the judgment entered by the Second Judicial District Court, Silver Bow County, accepting Helfrich's conditional guilty pleas to the misdemeanor offenses of criminal defamation and stalking. Pursuant to § 46-12-204(3), MCA, Helfrich reserved the right to appeal from the District Court's order denying his

Page 1160

motion to dismiss the charges. We reverse and remand.

The following issues are raised on appeal:

1. Is § 45-8-212, MCA, which defines the offense of criminal defamation, unconstitutionally overbroad?

2. Did the District Court err in denying Helfrich's motion to dismiss the charge of stalking?

On or about May 30 or May 31, 1994, Helfrich distributed fliers in various locations in Silver Bow County, Montana. The fliers alleged that a named individual had engaged in criminal conduct. Based on Helfrich's distribution of the fliers, the Silver Bow Deputy County Attorney filed two complaints in Justice Court, the first alleging that Helfrich committed the offense of criminal defamation in violation of [277 Mont. 454] § 45-8-212(2), MCA, and the second alleging that Helfrich committed the offense of misdemeanor stalking in violation of § 45-5-220(1)(b), MCA. A bench trial was held in Justice Court and the court found Helfrich guilty of both offenses.

Helfrich appealed his convictions to the District Court and filed a motion to dismiss the charges of defamation and stalking on the grounds that the criminal defamation statute is unconstitutional and that his actions did not constitute stalking within the meaning of the stalking statute. The District Court denied the motion to dismiss and Helfrich entered conditional guilty pleas reserving his right to appeal. This appeal followed.

1. Is § 45-8-212, MCA, which defines the offense of criminal defamation, unconstitutionally overbroad?

In reviewing the constitutionality of a statute enacted by the legislature, this Court presumes that the statute is constitutional. State v. Lilburn (1994), 265 Mont. 258, 266, 875 P.2d 1036, 1041, cert. denied, 513 U.S. 1078, 115 S.Ct. 726, 130 L.Ed.2d 630 (1995) (citing Montana Auto. Ass'n v. Greely (1981), 193 Mont. 378, 382, 632 P.2d 300, 303). The reviewing Court must adopt a construction of the statute which renders the statute constitutional in preference to one which renders it invalid. Monroe v. State (1994), 265 Mont. 1, 3, 873 P.2d 230, 231. The party challenging the constitutionality of the statute carries the burden of proof. Monroe, 873 P.2d at 231; GBN, Inc. v. Montana Dep't of Revenue (1991), 249 Mont. 261, 265, 815 P.2d 595, 597.

In reviewing statutes which have been challenged under the doctrine of overbreadth, this Court has stated that:

"[A]n individual whose own speech or expressive conduct may validly be prohibited or sanctioned is permitted to challenge a statute on its face because it also threatens others not before the court--those who desire to engage in legally protected expression but who may refrain from doing so rather than risk prosecution or undertake to have the law declared partially invalid." Brockett v. Spokane Arcades, Inc. (1985), U.S. , , 105 S.Ct. 2794, 2802, 86 L.Ed.2d 394, 405-406. Thus, the statute may be unconstitutional on its face even though it would be constitutional as applied to appellant.

State v. Lance (1986), 222 Mont. 92, 99, 721 P.2d 1258, 1263. The statute at issue, § 45-8-212, MCA, provides:

(1) Defamatory matter is anything which exposes a person or a group, class, or association to hatred, contempt, ridicule, degradation,[277 Mont. 455] or disgrace in society or injury to his or its business or occupation.

(2) Whoever, with knowledge of its defamatory character, orally, in writing, or by any other means communicates any defamatory matter to a third person without the consent of the person defamed commits the offense of criminal defamation and may be sentenced to imprisonment for not more than 6 months in the county jail or a fine of not more than $500, or both.

(3) Violation of subsection (2) is justified if:

(a) the defamatory matter is true and is communicated with good motives and for justifiable ends;

(b) the communication is absolutely privileged;

(c) the communication consists of fair comment made in good faith with respect

Page 1161

to persons participating in matters of public concern;

(d) the communication consists of a fair and true report or a fair summary of any judicial, legislative, or other public or official proceedings; or

(e) the communication is between persons each having an interest or duty with respect to the subject matter of the communication and is made with the purpose to further such interest or duty.

(4) No person shall be convicted on the basis of an oral communication of defamatory matter except upon the testimony of at least two other persons that they heard and understood the oral statement as defamatory or upon a plea of guilty. [Emphasis added.]

In the instant case, Helfrich contends that § 45-8-212, MCA, is overbroad because the statute allows a criminal conviction for an alleged defamation by a lesser standard than that which is required in a civil action for defamation. In a civil action, truth is an absolute defense barring any recovery by the plaintiff. New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964), 376 U.S. 254, 277-78, 84 S.Ct. 710, 724-25, 11 L.Ed.2d 686. Helfrich contends that truth should also be an absolute defense to a criminal prosecution for defamation. He notes, however, that under § 45-8-212(3), MCA, truth alone is not sufficient. Rather, the statute requires not only a showing of truth but also a showing that the alleged defamatory matter "is communicated for good motives and for justifiable ends."

In Madison v. Yunker (1978), 180 Mont. 54, 67, 589 P.2d 126, 133, this Court adopted the defamation standard set forth in New York Times. One of the principles established in New York Times is that [277 Mont. 456] truth is an absolute defense. 1 Helfrich argues, relying on New York Times, that a showing of good motives and justifiable ends is not required to defend a civil defamation action and such a showing should not be required to avoid criminal liability.

As the State concedes, the vast majority of courts which have addressed the constitutionality of criminal defamation statutes which require, as a defense, that the alleged defamatory material be communicated with good motives and for justifiable ends, have declined to judicially narrow the statutes and, therefore, have found such statutes to be unconstitutional. See e.g., Tollett v. United States (8th Cir.1973), 485 F.2d 1087; Gottschalk v. State (Alaska 1978), 575 P.2d 289; Weston v. State (1975), 258 Ark. 707, 528...

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