1887 law could send man to jail

2009-09-11T00:15:00Z 1887 law could send man to jailBy Nolan Rosenkrans | nolan.rosenkrans@lee.net Winona Daily News

A Winona man could go to jail for 90 days after he was cited Wednesday for violating an obscure 1887 city code prohibiting cursing in public.

Lucas Charles Wilcox, 19, was cited for swearing in public and being a public nuisance after he yelled vulgarities at police who earlier gave him a ticket for drinking at a party.

Winona's swearing law is seldom enforced - one assistant city attorney couldn't provide an example of it ever being prosecuted. And it could present a constitutional quandary because of the way it is written, says one legal scholar.

"There could well be some First Amendment issues with an ordinance that broad," said Steve Simon, a clinical professor at the University of Minnesota Law School.

The swearing law is one of Winona's oldest. Winona City Code 62.13 states, "No person shall, in the city, in any place of public resort or within the hearing of other persons, use any obscene language."

What the law considers obscene isn't specified. Police say Wilcox used several four-letter words.

Wilcox was leaving a house party in the 500 block of Harriet Street shortly after midnight when he was cited, Deputy Police Chief Tom Williams said. Wilcox walked down the street, cursing at officers who could hear him clearly from a block away. Several neighbors also heard the shouting.

Wilcox could not be reached Thursday for comment.

Many cities in Minnesota have obscene language laws, Simon said, though some have been struck down after they faced constitutional challenges. A law as broad as Winona's could apply to actors performing a play in a city park, he said.

Police normally issue disorderly conduct tickets in similar situations, Williams said, but officers use discretion to choose the most appropriate charge.

Violating Winona's obscenity law is a misdemeanor, with a maximum penalty of 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Assistant City Attorney Brian Glodosky commended police for so thoroughly knowing the city code but declined to speculate whether the charge would hold up in court.

Copyright 2015 Winona Daily News. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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