Appeal of criminal convictions in Douglas and Montgomery counties led Friday to the Kansas Supreme Court's decision to declare unconstitutional a provision of state law on the making of criminal threats because it was written so broadly as to violate free speech rights in the U.S. Constitution.
The First Amendment perspective of the state's highest court was accompanied by reversal of the verdict against a man found guilty of making a reckless criminal threat to a convenience store clerk about the alleged failure of law enforcement to investigate the shooting death of a dog. The Supreme Court also reversed the conviction of a man prosecuted for using threatening language toward his mother.
District court proceedings in both cases had been affirmed by the Kansas Court of Appeals.
The opinion written by Supreme Court Justice Marla Luckert in the case of Douglas County appellant Timothy Boettger said a 2018 statute allowing for criminal conviction of a person making a threat in "reckless disregard of causing fear" was unconstitutionally broad.
"Even though governmental restrictions ... of speech may be constitutional, they can also go too far and result in an infringement of First Amendment rights," the opinion said.
Luckert also authored the opinion in the case of defendant Ryan Johnson, who was convicted of making a threat during a domestic dispute in Montgomery County.
The Supreme Court's majority ordered a new trial for Johnson on constitutional grounds outlined in the Boettger opinion. That conclusion was reached despite the justices agreeing there was sufficient evidence to support Johnson's guilty verdict for criminal threat.
Justice Caleb Stegall's dissenting opinion, which was joined by Justice Dan Biles, said constitutional vagueness of state law was at issue in the case, but that shouldn't compel the Supreme Court to vacate the 14-month sentence given Johnson by the district court.
"I would not reverse Johnson's conviction," Stegall said. "I would find the constitutional error is harmless."