Thompson v. D'Errico: Order your transcript for your appeal!

The Facts

            The plaintiff, Linda Thompson, filed a domestic violence petition against the defendant, Christopher D’Errico requesting an order of protection. After an evidentiary hearing, the Court issued a final order of protection, and made findings that the defendant had on a daily basis sent text messages to the plaintiff using “extraordinarily foul language”, that the defendant had made reference to a having a loaded shotgun, and that a family friend had to interfere to stop the defendant from putting his hands around the plaintiff neck. The defendant moved for reconsideration, arguing that the evidence did not support a finding that he posed a credible threat to the plaintiff’s safety. The trial court conducted a further hearing, and issued an order detailing the text messages sent by the defendant at extremely inconvenient hours, using such language as “bills asshole die bitch,” sent in the days leading up to the filing of the domestic violence petition. The court found these texts to be a “credible present threat, considering the defendant’s previous threat of the loaded shotgun and the defendant’s previous attempt to put his hands around the plaintiff’s neck.”

The Appeal

The defendant appealed the order, arguing that:

(1) his non-threatening foul language is protected by the First Amendment;

(2) there is no evidence to support the plaintiff’s allegations against him;

(3) the text messages might have been sent by a third party having access to his phone;

(4) the trial court erred by admitting evidence of certain text messages; and

(5) the evidence does not support the finding of a credible present threat to the plaintiff’s   safety. 

The Holding

            The evidence supported a finding of a credible threat to the plaintiff’s safety. The Supreme Court came to this conclusion because the defendant, who was the appealing party, failed to provide a transcript, and absent a transcript, the court must assume that the evidence was sufficient to support the trial court’s ruling. The court refused to consider other questions presented on appeal for this same reason, finding that the defendant had failed to demonstrate that he had preserved issues for appeal without a transcript evidencing his objections to evidence.

            The First Amendment does not protect the defendant’s non-threatening foul language because the definition of harassment, which requires repeated communications with offensively coarse language that is made with the purpose to annoy or alarm, is narrowly tailored to the illegal communication it seeks to prevent.

The Takeaway

            Provide a transcript for your appeal. The transcript is the written record of what happened during your hearing or trial. Without a transcript, the Supreme Court has no way of knowing whether you brought an issue to the attention of the trial court for consideration. For example, did you object when the other side submitted a tax return to the judge? If your appeal alleges that the trial court improperly allowed the tax return into evidence, the Supreme Court needs to confrim that you objected and preserved that issue for their review. Similarly, without a transcript, the Supreme Court must assume that the conclusions or findings reached by the trial court were supported by the evidence. In this case, the defendant failed to provide a transcript, and many of his arguments brought before the Supreme Court, including whether the trial court had sufficient evidence to reach the conclusion that he presented a credible threat to the plaintiff’s safety, failed for that reason. The results might have been different if he had ordered and paid for the transcript.

            As the Occupy Wall Street movement recently learned, free speech as limits. The statute defining harassment requires a repeated course of conduct, where communication occurs at extremely inconvenient hours or with extremely coarse language. The calls must also be made with the purpose to annoy or alarm. Harassment cannot be conjured from a single call made to anyone, anywhere, at any time. Here, the defendant sent repeated texts, at inconvenient hours, and with extremely coarse language. The texts were clearly designed the alarm the plaintiff, rather than expressive conduct made for a legitimate purpose. This communication is the exact type of illegal behavior the statute is designed to prevent.