An encounter that started with a Meridian police officer talking to a man about lingering in a crosswalk has become a test of what is protected free speech — and what constitutes a threat against a police officer. At stake is a felony charge punishable by up to five years in prison and a $50,000 fine.
Matthew Townsend was charged with felony witness intimidation after he “tagged” police — and family members of an officer — on a Facebook post in which he complained bitterly that his January arrest was unjust and should be dismissed. He’s accused of resisting and obstructing officers, a misdemeanor.
Townsend is a restaurant cook who ran unsuccessfully for Meridian City Council in 2013 and for Ada County coroner in 2014. He’s a gun rights activist who promotes public awareness of open carry laws. He’s also involved in Cop Watch, part of the police accountability movement, and frequently records police stops.
In his March 18 Facebook post, Townsend said that if the misdemeanor charge wasn’t dropped, he planned to begin a nonviolent “shame campaign” against the officer who arrested him, staging protests in the officer’s neighborhood, causing “upsets” at homeowners association meetings, sending mailers and more.
“I know where you all live – this is notification of knowledge and future protests, not a threat,” Townsend wrote.
At the close of the Facebook post, the 29-year-old said the state has a few options in dealing with him. He suggested that he could engage in “non-violent” retaliation and asked: “Do you want to be the focus of my rage?” He said another option was for the police to kill him and then deal with those who love him.
Facebook tagging is a way to share a posted message to specific people and make it more likely they will see it. Townsend tagged the Meridian Police Department, family members of Cpl. Richard Brockbank, Meridian Mayor Tammy de Weerd, local media and numerous others.
Ada County prosecutors say Townsend’s social media message crossed the line. The amended criminal complaint says Townsend communicated “a promise and/or threat” to a police officer, his friends and family and outlined consequences if his criminal charge wasn’t dismissed.
FREE TO CRITICIZE POLICE
Aaron Tribble, Townsend’s attorney, said the only thing that his client was threatening to do was protest.
“You have a right to complain about public officials when you think they’re doing something wrong or corrupt,” Tribble said. The First Amendment, he said, allows the public to criticize public officials.
“He didn’t make any kind of physical threat,” Tribble said. “He didn’t say, ‘I’m going to hurt you, I’m going to hurt your family.’ ... If you wanted to threaten someone physically, why would you go around tagging news stations?”
According to court records, Brockbank, the officer who arrested Townsend in January, testified about the Facebook post at the preliminary hearing April 15.
“We all want to be safe and secure in our homes. Someone telling me that they know where I live in an adversarial manner like this, I view that as a threatening statement,” he said. He noted that he was aware of an officer in Idaho Falls whose house had been burned by an angry suspect.
Meridian Police Deputy Chief Tracy Basterrechea manages the department’s Facebook page and was the first in the department to see Townsend’s post. He said in court that his biggest concern was that Brockbank’s family was tagged on the post.
At Townsend’s pretrial conference March 19 on the misdemeanor charge, prosecutors apprised Fourth District Judge James Cawthon on Townsend’s Facebook post. Cawthon ordered Townsend to untag Brockbank’s family members from the post. It appears from the post’s edit history that Townsend did so, and also deleted some of the original post.
A warrant for Townsend’s arrest was issued March 20, and he was taken into custody just before 9 p.m. that night, according to the sheriff’s office. He was booked into the Ada County Jail, but within a few hours posted $25,000 bond.
Townsend was in Ada County Court last week for a preliminary hearing. He is set to enter a plea May 15; a trial date has not been set.
The misdemeanor arrest that riled up Townsend occurred around 6:30 p.m. Jan. 30 on East Franklin Road and North Main Street in Meridian, according to the probable cause affidavit.
Officer Brockbank said he observed Townsend – dressed in a black robe, holding a sign and plastic pick ax – enter the crosswalk at the corner when the crossing light was flashing, the affidavit says. Brockbank said the crosswalk light turned solid, indicating “don’t walk,” when Townsend stopped in the middle of the crosswalk to face traffic and raise the sign and pick ax.
Tribble said Townsend was dressed as the grim reaper and carrying a plastic sickle. Townsend has said that he was protesting taxes that day.
Brockbank said in the affidavit that Townsend paused about five seconds before continuing in the crosswalk. Brockbank said he pulled over to talk to Townsend about crosswalk laws.
“I approached the male and he immediately began to tell me he had not broken the law,” the affidavit says. “I explained to the male that he had broken the law by stopping in traffic and preventing eastbound traffic from going.”
Brockbank said Townsend pointed the plastic pick ax at him while they were talking and refused to put it down. The officer said he took the plastic ax and cuffed Townsend only after he refused to provide identification and walked away, ignoring several requests to stop.
Townsend was booked into the Ada County Jail on a charge of resisting and obstructing officers. That’s a misdemeanor that carries a punishment of up to a year in jail and a fine of up to $1,000. A trial date was set for June, then vacated. A pretrial conference on that charge has been set for July 8.
Townsend works at a Boise restaurant, according to his application to have a public defender appointed for him. He obtained a public defender, then opted to have Tribble represent him.
A “Free Matthew Townsend” Facebook page has been created to raise awareness about the charges against him. His advocates have picketed on his behalf, and some appear in an online video. The Free Matthew Townsend Facebook page, which calls the Meridian man a “liberty activist who was targeted by police for official retaliation,” has more than 500 “likes.”
Like-minded individuals around the country are paying attention. A representative with the online website copblock.org, which describes itself as a “diverse group of individuals united by their shared goal of police accountability,” asked to record video of one of Townsend’s hearings. That request was denied. Fourth District Judge Theresa Gardunia said the court must be sensitive to victims, and that the group requesting to record is a non-traditional media outlet that concentrates on efforts that are “activist in nature.”
“The court is a legal sanctuary where disputes are resolved in a civilized, respectful and dignified manner while governed by the rule of law,” Gardunia’s ruling said. “Preservation of this process is too important to jeopardize the outcome of any proceeding in an effort to satisfy one group, entity or individual’s appetite for Internet fodder.”