The Constitution of the United States protects the people's right to peaceful assembly and protest. However, in some cases, protesting can cross the line into criminal activity. In the state of California, for example, Penal Code Section 169 PC makes it a crime to picket in or near a courthouse to obstruct justice.
Under this law, it's a crime for someone to picket or parade near a courthouse with intent either to interfere with or obstruct the administration of justice or to influence any judge, juror, witness, or court officer.
Any social protest in support or disapproval or need for significant change regarding a social policy or personal preference could be considered picketing if the public perceives the communication for that purpose.
Picketing is typically a social protest that is organized to be directed at a target audience to help them understand what they are protesting. Parading is also a social function that could be considered a type of celebration.
In the context of this statute, a courthouse is a building operated by the state government to decide legal issues by a judge or jury. Judges impose punishments, fines, probation, terms, and conditions.
To convict someone of picketing near a court to obstruct justice, a prosecutor has to be able to prove different factors that are called the elements of the crime.
They must prove the defendant picketed or paraded in or near a building that houses a California court and that their conduct was intended to interfere with, obstruct, or impede the administration of justice, or they acted to influence a judge, juror, witness in the discharge of their duty.
If you are convicted of doing so, you could face fines of up to $1000 and up to six months in jail. Our Los Angeles criminal defense lawyers will explain this law further below.
What Constitutes Picketing Near a Courthouse to Obstruct Justice?
The actual text of Penal Code 169 PC reads as follows:
- “Anyone who pickets or parades in or near a building which houses a court of this state with the intent to interfere with, obstruct, or impede the administration of justice or with the intent to influence any judge, juror, witness, or officer of the court in the discharge of his duty is guilty of a misdemeanor crime.”
It's important to note that the act of picketing a courthouse in itself is not a crime because the right to peaceful protest still exists.
It's only when the participants do so with the intent of interfering with, obstructing, or illegally influencing the administration of justice. Thus, the intent is the operative word here. As mentioned above, for prosecutors to prove that you are guilty of this crime, they must show that:
- You picketed in or near a building being used as a courthouse, AND
- You did so with the intent to interfere with, obstruct, or impede the administration of justice; OR
- You did so to attempt to influence a judge, juror, witness, or court officer.
If the prosecution can't prove these elements beyond a reasonable doubt, you can't be convicted of this crime.
What Are Some Examples?
EXAMPLE 1: Edward's brother George is on trial for murder. During the trial, Edward and several friends gather on the courthouse steps with a big sign that demands that George be acquitted. Edward and his friends are guilty of violating PC 169 because their sign shows an intent to influence the outcome.
EXAMPLE 2: Same scenario, except the sign, simply reads, “Justice for George.” In this case, proving a violation of PC 169 is more difficult because the sign doesn't imply what “justice” means.
EXAMPLE 3: A group of people attempts to blockade the jury entrance to the courthouse during a high-profile trial.
This violates PC 169 because the crowd directly interferes with the jurors' ability to perform their duty.
EXAMPLE 4: Protestors gather outside the state supreme court to express displeasure at a recent court decision.
This would not violate PC 169 because the decision has already been made, and they aren't attempting to interfere with it.
What Are the Penalties for PC 169?
Picketing near a courthouse for the purpose of obstructing justice is a misdemeanor in California. The penalties for a conviction are up to six months in county jail and a fine of up to $1,000.
The judge can impose summary probation as an alternative to jail time, depending on the circumstances of the case.
What Are the Related Offenses?
- Rioting (Penal Code 404 PC): Effectively the opposite of a “peaceful protest,” rioting is when people gather for violence or disruption.
- Failure to disperse (Penal Code 409 and 416 PC): Failing to obey the command of a police officer to disperse from an unlawful assembly.
- Unlawful assembly (Penal Code 407 and 408): it's a crime for someone to participate in an unlawful assembly where two or more people gather to do something illegal.
What are the Common Defenses?
Suppose you're charged with picketing near a courthouse with the intent to obstruct justice. In that case, a good defense attorney can employ one or more strategies to defend against the charges, depending on the circumstances. Common defenses are discussed below.
Perhaps we can argue there was no intent to obstruct. For example, you were protesting a court decision and not trying to influence any current or future cases, or you engaged in no overt activity that conveyed your desire to influence the outcome of a trial.
Perhaps we can make an argument it was a peaceful protest. Suppose there is no evidence that you were actively trying to influence the courts, the jurors, officers, etc. In that case, your attorney can invoke your fundamental constitutional right to assemble peacefully to protest.
Perhaps there was no probable cause. Even in a protest situation, the police must still have probable cause to arrest you. For example, if you happened to be a casual observer of an ongoing protest at the courthouse and the police arrested you as part of a group even though you were not behaving in any particular way, they had no probable cause, and the charges should be dropped.
If you or someone you know was charged with violating Penal Code 169 PC, contact our office to review the details and discuss the legal options.
The Los Angeles-based criminal defense law firm Eisner Gorin LLP provides legal representation across California. You can reach us for a case review by phone or use the contact form.