The charges were simple enough: willfully damaging federal property, creating a hazard on federal property and creating a nuisance on federal property. The maximum punishment was just seven days in jail.
But the case against Ronald J. Strong, a Portland man charged with deliberately soiling a small bathroom inside the U.S. District courthouse on Federal Street, tied up federal resources for more than two years before a federal appeals court in Boston last week upheld his original conviction.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Craig Wolff acknowledged that the case was unusual, but declined Thursday to discuss his office’s decision to prosecute Strong.
Strong, 53, has denied the charges on the basis that the government could not prove intent and that there was no proper display notice of the regulations he was charged with violating.
Even the three-judge appeals panel split in its decision. The lone dissenting judge’s opinion, at 30 pages, was longer than the majority opinion.
The court ruling dated July 19 spells out in detail the circumstances that led to the federal charges against Strong.
On May 24, 2011, Strong arrived at the courthouse about 11:30 a.m. to conduct business at the clerk’s office. He was preparing to pass through the mandated metal detector when he told a security officer that he needed to use the bathroom. The officer said he could use the bathroom as soon as he was screened.
As Strong passed through the metal detector, he told the officer that he was defecating in his pants. The officer escorted Strong to a bathroom on the first floor about 75 feet away. Strong spent between five and 10 minutes in the bathroom and then left.
After about 15 minutes, another officer went to use the bathroom and discovered unsightly conditions. He called the courthouse cleaning supervisor.
“She smelled feces from the hallway, and when she opened the door she could not enter the restroom because feces were on the floor. The restroom was unusable because it was so soiled,” the court document reads.
The cleaning supervisor estimated that 75 percent of the floor was covered in feces, which were also smeared on the walls in several places, and on the paper towel and toilet paper dispensaries. Boxer shorts, which Strong later admitted were his, also were found soiled in the wastebasket.
The cleaning supervisor had to clean the bathroom three separate times with bleach. She even disposed of the clothes she wore during the cleaning in a biohazard bag, according to the document.
Strong was charged three days later.
The case made its way through the court system in Maine, with Strong denying the charges every step of the way.
During his testimony at trial, Strong said that he involuntarily lost control of his bowels and that he was taking multiple medications that could have contributed to the accident. By the time he got to the bathroom, feces had already covered much of his clothing. He said he did the best he could to clean himself with paper towels and denied that he deliberately smeared feces anywhere.
“I still can’t believe I’m sitting here today,” he said during trial. “I’m still embarrassed. I’m angry.”
Strong also accused the cleaning supervisor of exaggerating the conditions in the bathroom and claimed that the courthouse did not properly display notice of the regulations he was charged with violating.
A federal magistrate judge found him guilty in September 2011. Strong appealed, but the verdict was affirmed. He then appealed to the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston.
In a 2-1 decision, the three-judge panel upheld the conviction and initial appeal ruling.
Chief Judge Sandra Lynch agreed with earlier decisions that Strong acted willfully in soiling the bathroom and wrote that statute requires posting of regulations in a conspicuous place. The regulations in the courthouse were posted on the wall next to the clerk’s office door, a door Strong had passed multiple times before.
“It is also relevant that the defendant did not report the state of the bathroom to anyone,” the decision read. “And, at the time, Strong had twice lost on a Social Security case in the district court.”
Judge Juan Torruella was the sole dissenter, and appeared to note the absurdity of the case in his minority opinion.
“The momentous importance of this case surely forecasts its deserved place in the annals of federal prosecutorial history,” he wrote. He added that “(it is) unreasonable to infer willfulness from the fact that Strong did not report the incident. The reasonable inference to draw from this fact is that Strong was embarrassed of what had transpired.”
Katherine Essington, a Providence attorney who represented Strong on appeal, did not return calls for comment.
No one on Tuesday answered a phone number listed for Strong in court documents.
Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at: