Thursday, February 13, 2014

Muncie City Judge Has Man Jailed for Passing Out Letter Criticizing Her

It is a story that might get national attention as an example of an abuse of judicial authority.  The Muncie Star-Press reports:
A critic of Muncie City Court Judge Dianna Bennington is in the Delaware County jail after being found guilty of contempt of court.

Curtis L. Westbrook, 55, was arrested Tuesday, a day after the contempt finding.

Curtis Westbrook
According to a document provided to The Star Press by a court employee, Westbrook was sentenced to 10 days in jail Monday after the judge ruled he was "creating confusion that disturbed the business and proceedings of the court by distributing a letter to undermine the authority of the court and to provide legal advice to defendants in the courtroom."


Westbrook in recent weeks has distributed a letter calling the judge -- who was elected to the bench in 2011 -- "One-Term Bennington" and referring to her "fiasco judgeship."

A member of Westbrook's family was charged in Muncie City Court with domestic battery in January 2013.

Curtis Westbrook has maintained his family member, and others, have not been informed in advance that City Court trials are bench trials, with Judge Bennington, rather than a jury, deciding a defendant's guilt or innocence. Cases of City Court defendants seeking jury trials are transferred into the Delaware Circuit Court system.

The letter distributed by Curtis Westbrook -- and dropped off recently at The Star Press -- calls the process by which City Court cases are transferred a "well-kept secret." He also maintains Bennington and others have a financial motivation to "keep the City Court litigants in the dark concerning their right to a jury trial," and suggests defendants could file misconduct complaints against the judge and attorneys involved in their prosecution.

"Finally, remember this come election time!" the Muncie man concludes.

According to Delaware County jail records, Westbrook is scheduled to be released at 8 a.m. Feb. 21.
Judge Bennington clearly doesn't understand the difference between criminal and civil contempt. The Court of Appeals in Mitchell v. Stevenson, 677 NE 2d 551, 560 (Ind. App. 1997) explains the difference: 
A civil contempt s a violation of a court order resulting in a proceeding for the benefit of the aggrieved party. As such, any type of penalty in a civil contempt proceeding must be coercive or remedial in nature. In contrast, a criminal contempt is an act directed against the authority of the court which obstructs the administration of justice and which tends to bring the court into disrepute.  Thus, any type of penalty is punitive in nature because its purpose is to vindicate the authority of the court and it benefits the State rather than the aggrieved party. 
Certainly Judge Bennington has the right to, if necessary, take Westbrook into custody to protect her courtroom from being disrupted.  That is a remedial measure for civil contempt.   But the fact is Westbrook had already left the courtroom. He was taken into custody when he came back.  Judge Bennington wanted Westbrook punished for his previous conduct in interfering with her courtroom.  That is clearly criminal, not civil, contempt.

Because the allegation constituted criminal contempt, such charges must be brought in the name of the State of Indiana by the prosecutor.  In that proceeding, Westbrook should have been afforded all the protections that go to criminal defendants, including the right to a public defender if Westbrook could not afford an attorney.  Further, the impropriety of Judge Bennington sitting in judgment of a harsh critic of hers is frankly off the charts.

The bottom line is that Judge Bennington appeared to very offended by Westbrook's public criticism and exercised extremely poor judgment in trying to silence her critic. The irony is that while Mr. Westbrook's letter criticizing Judge Bennington would have had little effect on her political prospects for re-election, the judge's abuse of her authority has created a much bigger issue that is more likely to cause her to lose re-election.

Judge Bennington would be well advised to seek legal counsel who I am sure will advise her: 1) to admit she made a mistake; and 2) to release Mr. Westbrook from jail...immediately.   An apology to Mr. Westbrook would also be in order but I won't get my hopes up.

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