Sunday, April 20, 2014
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."
Writing for the majority, Chief Judge Sandra Lynch maintained that Strong knew exactly what he was doing as he went about defiling the restroom. Lynch also went out of her way to disagree with Judge Torruella's dissenting opinion that there's no proof it was anything more than just an accident.
"The dissent begins with the red herring argument that Strong accidentally lost control of his bowels, but that is immaterial to the pertinent question," Lynch wrote. "The relevant question is not whether he purposefully defecated his pants, but whether he willfully spread his feces all over the bathroom resulting in a nuisance, hazard and damage. Moreover, the refusal of the CSO (court security officer) to let Strong use the restroom before passing through security may have given Strong motive to soil the restroom."
(Now I'm no legal scholar, but since when does the phrase "may have" trump the phrase "beyond a reasonable doubt"?)
In his 31-page dissent, Torruella argued that the soiled surfaces in the bathroom are consistent with a man who had had an accident down below and was understandably "attempting at a frantic pace to clean himself and his clothing."
The trial magistrate's finding that Strong did it on purpose was unsupported by the evidence, Torruella wrote. Moreover, he added, the government was "unreasonable" in its claim that Strong further incriminated himself by failing to alert the marshals waiting outside that they might want to get out the Clorox.
"The reasonable inference to draw from this fact," opined Torruella, "is that Strong was embarrassed of what had transpired."
Countered Lynch: "Strong need not have contaminated 100 percent of all surfaces to support the conviction for what he did willfully do."
Is it just me or is this starting to sound like a "Saturday Night Live" skit?
But wait, there could be more:
Essington, who is court-appointed (and thus paid by you and me) to represent Strong, has been unable to reach him since his latest appeal was denied. But to preserve his rights, she said, she's now working on a motion for "rehearing en banc" -- meaning the entire nine judges on the 1st Circuit court would take a second look, not just the three-member panels that typically tackle most cases.
And if that doesn't work? Could this malodorous mess, perish the thought, ultimately land on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court?
"At first, that idea sounds totally crazy," Essington said. "But whenever you have a published decision from a circuit court where there's a strong dissent, like there is in this case, it's certainly within the realm of possibility that the Supreme Court might be interested."
In particular, she added, the high court might zoom in on the part of Strong's case alleging that the courthouse rules were not adequately posted to alert visitors that while in the building they should not whatever. (No, the rules don't mention bodily functions. I went over Friday and checked.)
My calls to the U.S. Attorney's Office in Portland were not returned Friday. And as Essington noted, Strong currently is nowhere to be found.
Still, considering all the defendant has been through trying to clean up his reputation, it seems only right to give him the last word here.
"I still can't believe I'm sitting here today," Strong told the magistrate back in 2011. "I'm still embarrassed. I'm angry."
Imagine how he'll feel in jail.
Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: