In America, the First Amendment to the Constitution protects every citizen’s freedom of expression. When reading the words Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech, it’s tempting to take them at face value. No freedom, however, is without limits.
Speech alone can absolutely get you in trouble with the law, depending on the words you’re using and where you’re directing them. Here are four scenarios where saying the wrong thing at the wrong time can lead to a criminal charge.
Disorderly conduct is most often charged when a physical fight has taken place, but the State can also apply it to a person who knowingly or intentionally makes unreasonable noise and continues to do so after being asked to stop. This makes for a weird, gray area of law.
Political speech is protected, and that means you’re entitled to criticize an officer’s conduct. Other classes of speech, however—like obscenity and fighting words—do not enjoy First Amendment protection. Between the obvious examples of protected speech (politely questioning an officer’s motivations) and disorderly conduct (repeatedly screaming curse words and epithets in a disruptive manner), there are the tough cases.
What happens when your political speech includes profanity? Where is the dividing line between reasonable and unreasonable noise? Cases like these are always fact-sensitive, and again, this is a weird, gray area of law. In general, though, it’s not a great idea to continue yelling and screaming at a police officer after they’ve asked you to stop.
False informing is another example of potentially criminal speech. The statute in question criminalizes many different kinds of false reports—bomb threats, fire alarms, missing children—but it also explicitly provides that a person who gives a false report of the commission of a crime or gives false information in the official investigation of the commission of a crime, knowing the report or information to be false, commits false informing, a Class B misdemeanor.
If police are conducting an investigation, providing them with information you know to be false is itself a crime. If you think this sounds silly, remember that Martha Stewart didn’t go to prison for insider trading—she went to prison for lying to investigators about insider trading. Don’t lie to the police, especially when you’re not compelled to say anything at all.
Threatening language does not often qualify as protected speech. Intimidation occurs when you communicate a threat to someone with the intent of:
- coercing the threatened person into doing something against their will;
- placing the threatened person in fear of retaliation for a prior lawful act; or
- causing the evacuation of a dwelling, building or vehicle.
If someone’s calling 9-1-1, and there’s another person there in the background telling the caller to hang up the phone or else—that’s intimidation. It’s also intimidation for a cuffed person in the back of squad car to start threatening the arresting officer and their family. Promising to visit future violence on your perceived enemies is not usually a great strategy.
Indiana’s accomplice liability statute makes it so that an accomplice to a crime is equally as guilty as the primary actor. Under this law, a person who knowingly or intentionally aids, induces, or causes another person to commit an offense commits that offense.
This means that even if you only acted as the getaway driver, the State of Indiana still considers you a bank robber. Beyond that, though, Indiana Courts have held that accomplice liability may be based in encouragement. That is to say, counseling someone to commit a crime can be enough to get you charged as an accomplice. Speech that’s likely to incite imminent unlawful action is not protected by the First Amendment.
Make the Right Call
It’s naïve to think that words can never hurt you—especially when the police are involved. Choose your words thoughtfully and speak them with care. If you have any questions about whether certain speech might be criminal, the attorneys at the Marc Lopez Law Firm are here to help.
Give us a call at 317-632-3642 and remember—always plead the 5th!