July 28, 2013

Bill Nemitz: Case forecast to leave stain on federal justice system

What can be worse than not making it to the restroom on time?

Serving seven days in jail for it, that's what.

"It strikes me as kind of crazy that the government would spend these kinds of resources to prosecute him when he legitimately had an embarrassing, humiliating accident," Katherine Essington, a federal appeals attorney from Providence, R.I., said in an interview Friday. "It kind of blows my mind that they would turn that into a criminal prosecution."

She's talking about her client, Ronald J. Strong of Portland, also known as the defendant in United States v. Ronald J. Strong, which recently was decided in favor of the United States by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit in Boston.

Fair warning: From this point on, things get messy.

It all started back in May of 2011 when Strong, 53, a regular at the Edward T. Gignoux U.S. Courthouse in Portland due to an ongoing squabble with the Social Security Administration, showed up to conduct business with the court clerk's office.

As he prepared to pass through the metal detector at the entrance to the courthouse, Strong told the security guard he needed to use the bathroom -- and fast. First the security screening, Strong was told, then the bathroom.

Passing through the detector, Strong told the officer he was already defecating in his pants. Off he was hustled down the hall and around the corner to the small bathroom, where Strong (depending on which side you believe) frantically tried to clean himself up or decided to get nasty with the federal government.

He emerged about 10 minutes later and headed for the clerk's office under the escort of two U.S. deputy marshals -- standard procedure due to what court records call "an ongoing improper communication case involving Strong and a court employee."

Fifteen minutes after Strong exited the men's room, another officer went to use it and, well, let's just say Strong had made a mess of more than just himself.

According to the court record, the cleaning lady summoned to the scene found feces on three-quarters of the single-stall bathroom's floor, on the lower parts of the walls, on the dispensers for both the toilet paper and the paper towels and on the toilet seat. She also found Strong's soiled boxer shorts draped over the wastebasket.

Strong, who claims the 13 medications he takes for a heart condition sometimes cause incontinence, was charged three days later with three federal misdemeanors: damaging federal property, creating a hazard on federal property and creating a nuisance on federal property.

At his trial before a federal magistrate three months later, Strong testified that he'd had an accident, that he'd only tried to clean himself up and was so traumatized by the whole experience that he hadn't noticed the state in which he left the restroom. The cleaning lady's description of the bathroom, he argued, was somewhere between an exaggeration and an outright lie.

The U.S. Attorney's Office countered that he'd obviously done it all on purpose. The magistrate agreed, found Strong guilty as charged and sentenced him to a week in the slammer.

Strong, who has yet to serve the sentence pending final resolution of the case, appealed to U.S. District Court in Portland. No dice. He then took his case to the appellate court in Boston and, on July 19, lost there, too.

We pause now for a breath of fresh Maine air

OK, back to the latest court ruling.

The three-judge panel that heard the appeal split 2-1 on a case that, as dissenting Judge Juan Torruella wryly noted, "surely forecasts its deserved place in the annals of federal prosecutorial history."

(Continued on page 2)

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