Monday, January 9, 2017

City of Baldwin Park Agrees It Shouldn't Have Fined Citizen for Stating that Council Member Is Corrupt

Picture on the banner
On January 6, 2017, Greg Tuttle and his friends were told that they could put their signs back up. These signs allege that Council Member Ricardo Pacheco is corrupt. They were also told that the City would be canceling their fines, which was previously sent to a collections agency to damage their credit scores.

Here's the background of the case. The City Manager, Shannon Yauchtzee and City Attorney, Robert Tafoya, decided to use the City's code enforcement to fine anyone who had a sign that said that Council Member Ricardo Pacheco was corrupt. In order to fine its residents, Yauchtzee cited residents under a city sign ordinance, which restricted the size of the sign. The ordinance also stated that permits had to be applied for first before political signs could be put up.

Attorney Carol Sobel sent the City a letter to tell them what they were doing was in violation of the First Amendment's Free Speech clause. The City ignored the letter.

The City decided to fine its residents regardless. Tuttle countered. Sobel sued on his behalf in federal court.

At first, the city attorney told the Mayor and Council Members not to worry because the trial would be a year away. Well, he was wrong. Tuttle filed a restraining order, attempting to kill Baldwin Park's signage law.

On December 27, 2016, although the court denied the temporary restraining order, it stated that the City's law tried to control too much Free Speech, which everybody has the right to express. Hence, the court triggered the standard of "strict scrutiny," which almost always guarantees that a government agency will lose. (With regards to Free Speech, the courts apply strict scrutiny when the government makes law controlling content of speech or when it discriminates against a certain viewpoint - called viewpoint discrimination.)

The city made arguments that the court didn't appear too impressed with. It stated that these political signs were like Christmas decorations that were around after the holidays and nobody likes when that happens. The City also stated that the city is so busy with sign permits that it needs such laws, or it would be even busier.

The court stated that the laws violated Free Speech because, under a 2015 Supreme Court Case, Reed v. Town of Gilbert, the City law and enforcement of it controlled too much speech, because it regulated what could be stated on signs. Furthermore, the court stated that the city's restriction on political speech harmed the public interest.

But instead of granting the temporary restraining order, the court wanted to hold a full hearing at the end of January to determine whether to kill Baldwin Park's sign law. It ordered briefing by both parties, and it ordered the City to prove how busy they were with sign permit applications.

After, the City asked for more time to file its brief. Tuttle said more time would only be given if the city cancelled the citations and allowed for the Pacheco signs to be put back up. The City immediately agreed to cancelthe citations. But after much agony, it finally agreed that the Pacheco signs could be put up again

Tuttle was thrilled. He said, "It's so hard for people to get these results without public interest attorneys. These people think they could do whatever they want. But, we're proving them wrong."

Tuttle, resident Juan Rios, and owner of Prestige Mercedes are planning to put up their signs before the end of the day. 

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