Friday, March 7, 2008

Highway blogger exonerated

Judge rules man with anti-Bush signs not a danger

by Clarke Morrison , Asheville Citizen-Times
published March 7, 2008 12:15 am

ASHEVILLE – A judge found highway blogger Jonas Phillips not guilty Thursday of breaking a city law when he hung a sign from an overpass urging the impeachment of President Bush.

Phillips, 36, of West Asheville, had been charged by police with blocking a city sidewalk on the Haywood Road bridge over Interstate 240.

The defendant testified during his trial in Buncombe County District Court that he didn’t impede traffic on the sidewalk or the roadway when the dangled the sign reading “Impeach Bush, Cheney” for several minutes shortly before 8 a.m. Aug. 15.

His attorney, Bill Auman, told Judge James Calvin Hill that Phillips was selectively prosecuted because of the content of the sign. Others who have displayed signs over roadways have not been charged, he said.

“This is political speech,” Auman said. “This is his right to hold up a sign.

“He wasn’t blocking the sidewalk. (Highway) blogging is no more distracting than billboards or cell phones or bird droppings.”

But Assistant District Attorney Meredith Pressley said the case was about police enforcing the law to remedy a dangerous situation, not speech.

Officer Russell Crisp testified that he believed Phillips was distracting motorists on I-240 when he saw the defendant hanging the sign over the bridge railing. Crisp said he also saw Phillips cross Haywood Road during rush-hour traffic.

“It’s very dangerous for drivers to be distracted,” he said. “It’s just a very, very dangerous situation.”

But Crisp acknowledged under cross-examination by Auman that he didn’t see any pedestrians pass by Phillips on the sidewalk.

Sgt. Randy Riddle testified he “didn’t even know what the sign said” when he arrested Phillips.

Auman noted high school students aren’t arrested when they stand next to highways holding signs advertising car washes.

Hill said that in deciding the case, he looked at the presence or absence of any evidence showing the actions of Phillips endangered the public. The judge noted there was no evidence presented that the defendant had blocked the sidewalk or traffic in the roadway.

A crowd of supporters in the courtroom cheered Hill’s not guilty verdict.

Phillips said after the trial he was surprised by the ruling. He said he considers the verdict a victory for free speech, and he plans to continue his highway blogging.

“I was expecting to go to appeal,” he said. “This is great. It’s been seven months drug out on a ridiculous charge.”

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