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April 29, 2009

"Woman sent to jail for texting in court"

This local story from Utah, which carried the headline that is the title of this post, ought to get technology fans and First Amendment gurus all worked up:

A Utah woman is in jail for sending a text message. She's being held for contempt of court.

Susan Henwood, a mother of four, has been sentenced to 30 days in the Tooele County Jail because she sent a text message about a court hearing she was observing. "She shouldn't be there. She did nothing wrong," her husband, Joshua Henwood, said.

In early April, Joshua was sick and couldn't make his court appearance in a debt collection case. He sent Susan to ask for a continuance and to keep him updated, so she sent a text that said: "It doesn't look good for you" and "They're coming for the Polaris Ranger." The Polaris was one of several items the other side of the case wanted to sell to recoup supposed losses.  Henwood says his wife's text wasn't a warning to hide anything, just a heads up.

But Judge Stephen Henroid caught wind of the text and held Susan in contempt of court.  She started her 30 day sentence Monday. "You see drunk drivers and what do they get? A few days. She texts and she's in jail for 30? No, no," Susan's grandmother, Dolores Kyle, said.

Judge Henroid wasn't available for comment. A spokeswoman with the court system says the problem wasn't that Susan texted in court but the content of her text, but the spokeswoman was unable to provide further detail.

Back in Grantsville, Joshua says he still doesn't understand why his wife must spend a month in jail. He feels powerless to help. "I think this was an unfit punishment for the crime," he said.

The court spokeswoman says while everyone in a courtroom is asked to turn off their cell phones, sending a text message will usually just get you a reprimand from the bailiff. In this case, she reiterates, it was the content of the message.

April 29, 2009 at 07:54 AM | Permalink


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Pfffffffffff. BS.

She was clearly providing crucial information on which asset to hide to her scumbag husband.

She's not in jail for texting. She's in jail for helping her husband steal from his creditors.

Good riddance.

Posted by: pffffffffft | Apr 29, 2009 8:25:45 AM

And those TV news courtroom artists with their big sketch pads and all that messy colored chalk aren't thrown in jail?

No fair!

Posted by: edh | Apr 29, 2009 8:54:41 AM

"She's not in jail for texting. She's in jail for helping her husband steal from his creditors."

It seems to me that she did not help her husband "steal" until and unless he actually does steal. The 30 days is an outrageous sentence; this is a truly out-of-control rather tyrannical judge who does not belong in his job. (Will I get charged, now?) This is from a fairly conservative college professor.

Posted by: David Becker | Apr 29, 2009 12:09:23 PM

What was the purpose of the text if not to inform her husband which assets to hide? If she was merely sending her husband a status update she could of waited until a break in the proceedings.

30 days may be excessive, but I'm not buying the "babe-in-the-woods" act.

Posted by: Trudger | Apr 29, 2009 12:24:21 PM

How about "30 days for contempt of court in conspiring to obstruct court authorities engaged in a lawful debt collection procedure"?

The fact that it was accomplished via a text message from the courtroom is only relevant to show how blatant (and stupid) she was in her part of the illegal conspiracy.

If she'd been the lookout for a bank robbery and had been punished for alerting gang members to flee, would anyone claim that her rights to free speech had been abridged?

Perhaps the title for this post is intended to be provocative, a recursive method to help readers reach a greater truth by presenting them with a misleading premise that they're expected to test and reject. Maybe that's also true of the esteemed Prof. Reynold's link here, which is after all ended with a question mark.

But there's absolutely nothing here for thoughtful "technology fans and First Amendment gurus [to get] all worked up" about.

Posted by: Beldar | Apr 29, 2009 2:39:33 PM

Of course, the question is whether or not the husband did indeed "hide" the asset or attempt to hide the asset. It is a little hard to be guilty of aiding and abetting a crime if there is no crime. It is likewise hard to be part of a conspiracy to commit a crime if she is charged as a lone actor. By definition a conspiracy requires more than one bad actor and it doesn't appear that the system is going after her husband. Finally, the bank robbery analogy is poor at best. In that instance the person IS aiding and abetting a crime. Here, it is hard to determine if that is actually the case.

Posted by: smack | Apr 29, 2009 3:37:58 PM

The problem here, it seems to me, is "provability". Yeah, her actions seem fishy, but if there's no specific rule that she cannot text in court and there's no law to prohibit conveying factual information to her husband, then it's difficult to see how this sentence is just. Could she be convicted of a crime for going outside the courtroom and calling her husband to tell him? Seems unlikely.

Posted by: federalist | Apr 29, 2009 4:58:40 PM

sending a text message will usually just get you a reprimand from the bailiff

See, now this is where it goes wrong. I think that any judge who throws around things like "No cell phone should ever ring in my court!" is a tyrannical jerk who deserves to lose his job. ("Silence it now and take it outside" is entirely appropriate.) But to reprimand someone simply for texting? I recognize that this is a more complex case, but why are the bailiffs reprimanding anyone not directly involved in a case from texting? It can, after all, be done in complete silence.

Posted by: Random Anonymous guy | Apr 29, 2009 5:38:11 PM

If it is truly the content of the message, then would she have been prosecuted for leaving the courtroom and calling him on the phone to give him the same message?

Posted by: GuestCommenter | Apr 29, 2009 5:50:32 PM

So did the Polaris Ranger 'disappear'? It would kind of take the wind out of the accusation if it didn't, no? But who cares about facts?

Posted by: TMLutas | Apr 29, 2009 8:04:29 PM

GuestCommenter: You asked, "[W]ould she have been prosecuted for leaving the courtroom and calling [her husband] on the phone to give him the same message?" The answer is: Yes, precisely, and that's exactly the point. Whether she'd used text messaging, a telephone, or sky-writing, what she did was found by a judge to contemptuously interfere with a court-authorized process. And it was based on content and substance, not form.

Smack: Yes, it does indeed appear that the system is "going after her husband" -- for his debt. If there were further proof that he'd actually been successful in hiding the asset (instead of that process being interrupted by her being caught in the act of giving him warning to do so), he'd probably be in jail with her.

Random Anonymous guy: No one was "reprimand[ed] someone simply for texting" in this report. But as for why "bailiffs [should be] reprimanding anyone not directly involved in a case from texting," judges have authority to control what's going on in their courtrooms, and to enforce higher standards of discipline than, for example, your average movie theater or bus station. Sending text messages may be silent; but that doesn't mean that it's not a distraction or that it's not disrespectful. Many courts similarly forbid the reading of newspapers. If you choose to enter the courtroom as a spectator, you do so at the cost of abiding by the rules the judge sets, within very wide bounds. Some people are there not by choice, but on critical business, and minimizing distractions from the audience (even ones that YOU feel aren't particularly distracting, but as to which others may and do disagree) genuinely promotes the administration of justice. People who think they can flout courtroom rules which prohibit things like sending text messages should learn some manners; and if it's your future on the line in court some day, you should hope that the bystanders there will have learned theirs, failing which that the judge will enforce appropriate decorum.

TMLutas: The newspaper ought to have reported more facts, I'll agree. But you presume that there are none to support the court's contempt citation. In the absence of any evidence, I instead presume that the court did indeed find appropriate facts -- not reported by the newspaper, which was looking for a cute headline -- to support the citation. You think it's inherently implausible that a debtor who's trying, unsuccessfully, to delay the judicial process might similarly try to interfere with a lawful court order turning over one of his assets to his creditors? If so, you're woefully naive.

Posted by: Beldar | Apr 29, 2009 10:26:20 PM

More details, from the Salt Lake Tribune (emphasis mine):

A Grantsville woman was released Wednesday after spending two days in jail for allegedly texting her husband about hiding property during a debt collection hearing in 3rd District Court.

Susan Henwood was found in contempt of court Monday by Judge Stephen Henriod, who said she was "actively assisting her husband [Josh Henwood] in hiding assets."

Henriod had ordered Henwood to spend 30 days in jail. But he released her Wednesday, not because he was wrong, he said, but because he believed she should "be with her children," according to Wednesday court docket entry.

Susan Henwood admitted to texting in court, but not to the content of the communications, according to the docket entry.

The texting occurred during an April 6 hearing regarding a dispute over Josh Henwood's failure to pay for restaurant equipment purchased in March 2007 from Bob Wisdom, according to court documents.

Josh Henwood -- who has a $75,000 judgment against him -- was not in court that day because he was sick at home.

A woman sitting behind Susan Henwood during the April 6 hearing filed an affidavit stating that while the judge was talking about various items of property, Henwood was texting on her cell phone.

In addition, Henwood kept telling an older woman seated beside her that Wisdom's attorney "is not getting that," according to the affidavit.

And when the judge told Wisdom's attorney he could immediately collect a certain vehicle, Henwood told the older woman: "We will just move it, they are not getting it."

Henriod said Wednesday "the whole [Henwood] family has been involved in hiding the assets," according to a docket entry.

The judge asked attorneys to prepare a list of property that could be transferred to settle the debt. Another hearing is scheduled for Thursday.

One may think, as I do, that two days in jail is an insufficient punishment for trying to deliberately subvert the judicial system and defraud one's legitimate creditors. One may think it's too harsh.

But one may not rationally maintain that what Henrod was punished for was "texting in court," as such. She was punished for the content, which was not protected speech under the First Amendment, but instead an admission of her intent to criminally conspire. And the fact that she used cell phone text-messaging technology is totally irrelevant.

Posted by: Beldar | Apr 30, 2009 12:20:46 AM

Bah. Prof. Berman, you might want to enable at least limited HTML in your TypePad settings.

Here's the URL for Salt Lake Tribune story: http://www.sltrib.com/ci_12257077

In my comment just above, everything but the first and last paragraphs were intended to be part of a blockquote (which TypePad displayed in preview, but stripped the HTML codes for when the comment was actually published).

Posted by: Beldar | Apr 30, 2009 12:23:14 AM

Thanks for all the input, Beldar. You helped get us to the bottom of this story, though I think the tech and constitutional issues here are a little more dynamic than you suggest --- in part because the judge used (summary?) contempt proceeding to, in essence, go after her for aiding and abetting.

Posted by: Doug B. | Apr 30, 2009 6:51:49 AM

Doug, praytell, what constitutional issues arise from the judge's summary contempt proceeding?

Posted by: federalist | Apr 30, 2009 11:29:44 AM

Prof. B, thanks for your kind words. Per your question adjacent to your comments field, I'm a practicing civil trial lawyer who often represents both debtors and creditors in Houston, and that doubtless has made me somewhat jaded about the notion that Mrs. Henwood's text message about the truck could ever have been innocently intended.

I still don't know enough yet about the record and how things played out, or Utah procedural law, to have well-informed opinions about the procedural aspects or their due process implications, although I agree with you that what we do know could raise questions on that score. It would be interesting to know, for example, if the Henwood family insisted on an evidentiary hearing, with cross-examination rights, to challenge the affidavit testimony of the informant, or if they reserved their denials for a much more sympathetic news media. If I had to guess, I'd guess the latter, especially because they're proceeding pro se, in which case they may have waived their rights to more formal process. But yes, that could raise further questions and tend to undercut the scope of the trial judge's discretion. As a practical matter, he may have sprung her in part to head off a habeas petition with volunteer counsel who'd surely have shown up now that the case was getting media attention: Even majorly angry trial judges don't much like seeing relatively modest debt cases turn into international media circuses in which their own use of judicial discretion turns into the key issue.

As it's turned out, though, I'd further speculate (since I'm doing so much of that now) that the Henwood family will end up nursing, but not actively appealing or suing on, their grievances and enjoying the media hoo-hah that's sympathetic to them -- and that their creditor will indeed end up with their non-exempt assets to satisfy the judgment. 15 minutes of low-wattage fame may turn out to be a poor substitute for that truck.

Posted by: Beldar | Apr 30, 2009 4:00:13 PM

For someone practicing civil law, it's interesting how you come to such grand conclusions without evidence. Seems you should look into practicing in Tooele County where facts mean little to a case. If you took your time researching court documents you would see that they were denied a evidentiary hearing, and Judge Henroid ordered items to be seized without any proof (FACT) of ownership of said items. In fact almost every item seized, did not belong to Josh Henwood. (See court dockets of lien holders recovering items, and Henroid ordering all items to be returned back to Mr. Henwood shortly after his wife was released because of illegal seizure.) Another small fact you might be interested in is Ms. Henwood appeared in court on April 6 when the text was sent and a continuance was granted, she was not asked to appear again until April 27 on an order to show cause; but was not allowed to defend herself against the allegations nor allowed to face her accuser. Henroid ruled off of hearsay (the woman who gave the statement was being represented by Gary Buhler, the same attorney for the plaintiff in Henwoods case). Ms. Henwood was also denied bail, Henroid told her husband she would stay in jail for 30 days unless he paid the $70,000 debt. (Sound like she was being held hostage, and would have stayed their if it weren't for the media involvement.) First she was held in contempt for sending a text message, then Henroid claimed it was for the context of the text (no proof has ever been entered into court)and finally it was for helping hide assets. If you look at the court docs; Mr. Henwood was in court almost every Mon. for months all on order to show cause for allegedly hiding assets, yet he was never found guilty or held in contempt of court (in fact he was there on April 27 with his wife on an OSC and nothing was done.
If you look into this case it is very disturbing. Sure its easy to think that they are just trying to work the system, but further investigation proves that this judge and the attorney Gary Buhler are abusing the legal system for some personal agenda at their expense. Both Henroid and Buhler need to be held responsible. Henwood's need a good lawyer to step up and help them receive justice. Don't believe me, check it out yourself it's all public record.

Posted by: Informed | Nov 2, 2010 8:02:10 PM

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