Neighborhood horn-honker wins one before state Supreme Court
By SCOTT SUNDE, SEATTLEPI.COM STAFF
Backyard chickens, miffed neighbors and blasts of a car horn early in the morning may not seem like the stuff of a high-powered legal dispute.
But they are. And the Washington State Supreme Court waded through these issues and Thursday reversed the conviction of a woman horn-honker whose dispute in a Monroe neighborhood began the case.
A majority of the court didn’t vindicate the woman’s actions. Nor did it say that her horn-honking was protected free speech.
But it did say the Snohomish County noise ordinance used to charge and convict her is too broad and covers constitutionally protected free speech.
The feathers began to fly in the case in 2006.
Helen Immelt had backyard chickens in her cul-de-sac Monroe neighborhood. In May of that year, Immelt got a letter from her homeowners’ association saying she violated a covenant by having chickens.
The next day — a Saturday — Immelt honked the horn of a borrowed car repeatedly in front of a neighbor’s house. The Supreme Court says she thought the neighbor had complained about the chickens.
The horn-honking, which lasted five to 10 minutes, took place before 6 a.m.
The neighbor called police, and a sergeant with the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office arrived at 7 a.m.
As he was talking to the neighbor, Immelt drove pass and gave three long blast of her car horn.
The sergeant followed her and arrested her. She was convicted in district court and sentenced to 10 days in jail.
Immelt acted as her own attorney at the district court and for the first appeals. Lynnwood lawyer John Tollefsen represented her before the Supreme Court.
He said Thursday that the issue before the court was a constitutional one and a county noise ordinance that is too encompassing.
Tollefsen lives in Snohomish County and doesn’t want someone honking his or her horn in front of his house, he said. But the noise ordinance needs to be more specific, he said.
The majority opinion of the Supreme Court, written by Debra L. Stephens, prohibits horn-honking for purposes other than public safety. It does make an exception for honking your horn at parades and other public events.
“While it is not entirely clear what constitutes a public event, there is no basis to believe it includes … the carpool driver, the wedding guest, the troop supporter or the individual honking upon passing a picketer on the street corner,” Stephens wrote.
“The horn ordinance here does not survive scrutiny. It is sustantially overbroad. … It prohibits a wide swath of expressive conduct in order to protect a category of public disturbances.”
She was joined by five other justices in her majority opinion. Three justices dissented.
Chief Justice Barbara Madsen wrote in her dissent that she looked at what Immelt did and concluded that “her horn-honking was not sufficiently imbued with communicative elements to raise any First Amendment issues.”
And Justice James Johnson wrote that the noise ordinance is not too broad.
The Snohomish County Prosecutor’s Office issued this statement about the decision:
“State v. Immelt involved a woman who decided to angrily honk her car horn at 6 a.m. for 10 minutes in front of her neighbor’s home in response to a neighborhood dispute. When she was warned to stop honking her horn by a law enforcement officer, as it was creating a disturbance, she responded by honking her horn again. As a result Ms. Immelt was charged and convicted of violating the Snohomish County noise ordinance.
“The State Supreme Court considered whether criminalizing horn honking under the county code violated an individual’s right to free speech. While Federal authority construing the free speech clause of the First Amendment would first consider whether the actual conduct at issue was sufficiently like “speech” to warrant the special scrutiny argued here, the majority of the court did not employ this step and ruled on the constitutionality of the ordinance without considering Ms. Immelt’s specific conduct. The prosecutor’s office believes Chief Justice Madsen was correct when she wrote that this decision puts our Supreme Court on the “outer fringe.”
“The Snohomish County Prosecutor’s Office respectfully disagrees with the decision today, and is still assessing what its next step should be.”
Scott Sunde can be reached at 206-448-8331 or . Follow Scott on Twitter at twitter.com/scottsunde.