Court outburst costs attorney a $90 fine
By JENNIFER NITSON
A member of Benton County’s consortium of court-appointed defense attorneys was found guilty Monday of a disorderly conduct violation stemming from an argument with a Corvallis police officer.
In November, John Rich had just left a pretrial hearing with a client when Corvallis police officer Phil Howrey, who had testified at the hearing, said he was going to arrest the client on a Corvallis Municipal Court warrant.
Rich had gone to the municipal court that morning to check in with the judge, who had recalled the warrant.
After Howrey told Rich he would not take his word on that, Rich yelled at Howrey in the courthouse hallway, threatened to sue him for illegally arresting his client and called Howrey a vulgar name.
Though disorderly conduct is generally considered a misdemeanor offense under Oregon law, it was reduced to a violation in this case.
A special prosecutor, Clatsop County District Attorney Joshua Marquis, argued the case for the state and a substitute judge, Erik Larson from Marion County, presided at Monday’s trial in Benton County Circuit Court.
Courthouse staff members and former Benton County Deputy District Attorney Michael Wynhausen described the minute-long confrontation between Rich and Howrey as alarming, saying they saw or heard Rich yelling at Howrey and that office staff even called a courthouse security deputy.
Wynhausen told the court he worried the altercation might turn physical and that he tried to diffuse the situation by asking Howrey to let the client go and for Rich to calm down.
Rich testified that he was angry during the incident because officer Howrey knew the warrant against his client had been cleared, but proceeded to grab his client by the arm and take him into a court office while he called to check on it.
“Mr. Wynhausen told officer Howrey that he understood the warrant had been cleared and to let it go,” Rich said. “I told officer Howrey that if he took (my client) into custody without a valid warrant, I would sue him for unlawful arrest.”
Rich said he was advocating for his client’s rights when he yelled at Howrey.
“He tried to explain to me that he was just doing his job,” Rich said. “My opinion was he was trying to exercise his authority over me. ... He was just doing it to be malicious.”
Howrey was angry at the time, Rich asserted, because he was frustrated after being questioned by Rich in court.
During Monday’s trial, attorney Russell Barnett of Eugene asked that the case against Rich be dismissed, saying there was a double standard at the courthouse. Barnett said members of the Benton County District Attorney’s Office have been known to yell in the courthouse as well but have not been charged with disorderly conduct.
“The fact that the defense was claiming some form of vindictiveness is without any merit,” Benton County District Attorney Scott Heiser said after the trial.
After reviewing police reports on Rich’s case, Heiser said his office “removed ourselves from all discretionary decision making in this case.”
It was up to Marquis to decide on a charge, if any, Heiser explained.
Judge Larson refused to dismiss the charge, but during sentencing told Rich he felt it was a “close case.”
The judge said he believed he understood what happened the day of the incident, how Rich may have felt upset and disrespected as his client “was being hauled away,” and how it might have been hard for Rich to stay in control of his emotions.
“You should have, but you didn’t,” Larson said. “That’s how you found yourself here today.”
Larson added that at some point, most everybody has gotten upset and yelled at another person.
“This has happened to all of us at some time, and you were just unlucky enough to be called to task on it,” Larson said. “It seems someone decided to make an example of you.”
He was found guilty, Larson said, because Rich’s yelling “created a risk of public inconvenience, annoyance and alarm.”
Rich was fined $90.