STATE v. STEPHEN M. SABATO, SC 19406/19407

Judicial District of Danbury

 

      Criminal; Whether Evidence Sufficient to Prove Attempt to Interfere with an  Officer; Whether § 53a-167a Proscribes not Only “Fighting Words” but also “True Threats” and Other Constitutionally Unprotected Speech; Whether Evidence Sufficient to Prove Witness Intimidation.  The defendant was charged with stealing a cell phone, attempt to interfere with an officer and intimidating witness Ian Mason.  Mason gave a statement to the police saying that he had purchased the stolen phone from the defendant.  Around that time, the defendant sent Mason a text message telling him not to give a statement and to “keep his mouth shut.”  When the defendant learned that Mason had given a statement, he sent him threatening messages on Facebook.  The defendant was convicted of attempt to interfere with an officer and intimidating a witness, and he appealed.  The Appellate Court (152 Conn. App. 590) reversed as to the conviction of attempt to interfere with an officer and affirmed as to the conviction of intimidating a witness.  In ruling that the evidence was insufficient to support the interfering with an officer conviction, the court relied on State v. Williams, 205 Conn. 456 (1987).  In Williams, the Supreme Court, in rejecting a claim that the interfering statute, General Statutes § 53a-167a, is unconstitutionally overbroad, construed that statute as proscribing only physical conduct and fighting words that “by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace.”  The charge of attempt to interfere with an officer here was based exclusively on the defendant's text message telling Mason to keep his mouth shut, and the Appellate Court found that that message did not contain fighting words or words that by their very utterance inflicted injury or tended to incite a breach of the peace.  The court rejected the defendant’s claim that there was insufficient evidence to convict him of intimidating a witness in violation of General Statutes § 53a-151a.  First, the court held that there was sufficient evidence for the jury to find that the defendant “believ[ed] that an official proceeding [was] pending or about to be instituted” for purposes of the statute based on the defendant’s Facebook messages stating that the police were "getting warrants" and "building a case" and that he would "eat the charge."  The Appellate Court also found that there was sufficient evidence for the jury to conclude that the defendant believed that Mason likely would be summoned to testify at a future proceeding and that the jury could have inferred that the he intended to influence, delay or prevent Mason's testimony based on his Facebook messages calling Mason a snitch, stating that "snitches get stitches" and threatening that Mason should be prepared for the repercussions of his actions.  The state and the defendant appeal.  In the state's appeal, the Supreme Court will decide whether the Appellate Court properly found that there was insufficient evidence to support the conviction of attempt to interfere with an officer and, if so, whether Williams should be modified to proscribe not only fighting words but also "true threats" and other categories of unprotected speech.  It will also consider whether the lack of a jury instruction on “true threats” was harmless under the circumstances here.  In the defendant's appeal, the Supreme Court will decide whether the Appellate Court properly held that there was sufficient evidence to convict the defendant of intimidating a witness in violation of § 53a-151a.