Albemarle County, VA – A Virginia circuit court judge has dismissed criminal charges brought against Richard C. Collins, who had earlier been convicted of trespassing after distributing campaign literature on a sidewalk at an Albemarle County shopping center. Lawyers for the ACLU of Virginia had argued that the conviction should be dismissed because Collins lacked an intent to trespass as required by Virginia law and because the Virginia Constitution protects the right to leaflet on privately-owned sidewalks – such as those found at shopping centers – that are open to the public.
In his opinion, dated October 10, Judge Paul M. Peatross wrote:
The authorization used by Mr. Collins to remain on the property of Shopper’s World was his claim of free speech under the United States Constitution. The issue is whether or not that level of authorization is sufficient [to] negate criminal intent for the purposes of a conviction after his arrest and detention. Because of the lack of authority in Virginia directly on point and because there is a minority view in the other states, this Court finds this his mistaken belief is sufficient to negate the criminal intent. Accordingly, the Court finds Mr. Collins not guilty of trespass as charged.Peatross, however, warned Collins not to distribute campaign literature at shopping centers again, citing his own decision in Collins’s civil case, in which he held that the Virginia Constitution does not protect free speech rights on private property. The ACLU has appealed Peatross’s ruling in the civil case to the Virginia Supreme Court.
“We’re delighted to put this behind us,” said ACLU of Virginia executive director Kent Willis, “but it won’t be over until we prevail in the civil case now before the Virginia Supreme Court. Our goal is to get Virginia’s highest court to understand that shopping centers today are as critical to people-to-people political messaging -- that is, free speech -- as town centers were in earlier times.”
Collins’s case began on May 7, 2005, when he was charged with criminal trespassing after distributing campaign literature outside the Whole Foods store in Shopper’s World, a large shopping center located off Rt. 29 in Albemarle County. Collins did not obstruct pedestrian or vehicular traffic, and was polite in his dealings with shoppers, but he was asked to leave by a shopping center official. Last October, the Albemarle County General District Court found Collins guilty of trespassing. Tuesday’s ruling overturns the General District Court decision.
In a separate civil case heard in May 2006 (Collins v. Lebo) the ACLU argued that the Virginia Constitution protected Collins’s right to leaflet at the shopping center. Judge Peatross dismissed Collins’s civil case, but that ruling has been appealed to the Virginia Supreme Court.
Contacts: ACLU of Virginia: Kent Willis or Rebecca Glenberg, 804/644-8022 Steven D. Rosenfield, 434/984-0300