A Stratford, Connecticut man who cursed at two water company employees on his property had his disorderly conduct conviction thrown out by the Connecticut Supreme Court, even though he referenced getting a gun and made threatening comments.
The state high court reasoned that the water company employees are trained to deal with angry members of the public and that the man did not have immediate access to a gun.
Chipping away at the fighting words doctrine
The decision is another example of the Connecticut high court chipping away at the fighting words doctrine.
Laurence V. Parnoff, an attorney, became upset when he saw two water company employees on his property. The employees from Aquarion Water Company were performing fire hydrant maintenance. They had entered Parnoff’s property because they had an easement to service the hydrant. Once on the property, the employees noticed that one of the hydrant caps was missing. They then accosted members of Parnoff’s family to inquire about the missing hydrant cap.
A shirtless Parnoff was upset that the water company employees were on his property. He was unarmed and only carried a can of worms to go fishing with his grandson. He repeatedly ordered the employees off his property. He allegedly stated: “If you go into my shed, I’m going to go into my house, get my gun and fucking kill you.”
The water company employees called the police and Parnoff was charged with disorderly conduct and criminal mischief for tampering with the fire hydrant. A jury found Parnoff not guilty of criminal mischief but guilty of disorderly conduct.
Parnoff appealed to an intermediate appeals court in Connecticut, which reversed the conviction. The appellate court reasoned that there was insufficient evidence showing that Parnoff’s statement would cause an immediate violent reaction on the part of the water company employees.
The state appealed to the state’s high court, which also ruled that the conviction could not stand in its July 3, 2018, decision in State v. Parnoff.
The disorderly conduct law provided in pertinent part that a person is guilty of the offense when, “with intent to cause inconvenience, annoyance or alarm, or recklessly creating a risk thereof, such person … engages in fighting or in violent, tumultuous or threatening behavior.”
State relied on Chaplinksy for its arguments
The state did not pursue the theory that Parnoff uttered a true threat. Instead, the state argued that Parnoff’s conviction should stand because he uttered fighting words defined by the U.S. Supreme Court in Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire (1942) as “words which by their very utterance inflict injury or cause an immediate breach of the peace.”
The Connecticut high court reasoned that Parnoff did not utter fighting words because his speech, however inappropriate, was unlikely to cause the water employees to react with violence. The high court wrote that “the objectively apparent circumstances did not indicate any immediate intent or ability on the part of the defendant to carry out that threat.”
The state high court also reasoned that the water company employees were professionals who – like police officers and like the store manager in the recent Connecticut Supreme Court decision State v. Baccala (2017) – were trained to deal with unruly individuals.
“An average water company employee working in the fields of Connecticut would routinely be present on private property in many settings, including in wooded areas, while interacting with irritable property owners,” the court wrote.
The court also focused on the testimony of one of the water company employees who said that Parnoff’s words “bounced right off of him” and he did not feel threatened.
The court cautioned that if the state had pursued a theory that Parnoff had uttered a true threat, instead of fighting words, the result might have been different.
One justice dissented, writing: “I am not prepared to say that our discourse has devolved to the point that a person’s threat to use a gun during a heated confrontation with public utility workers is anything less than a specific threat of violence likely to precipitate an immediate preemptive strike or, in its place, a significant law enforcement response.”
The Connecticut Supreme Court already has made waves in its interpretation of the fighting words doctrine. Last year in the Baccala decision, the court expanded the category of recipients who are presumed to exercise greater restraint when confronted with insulting speech from police officers to store managers.
Now, the Connecticut high court has extended that even more to cover employees of a water company. The state unsuccessfully sought U.S. Supreme Court review in Baccala. It will be interesting to see if the state seeks U.S. Supreme Court review of this decision too.