A Long Island man is facing 30 days in jail for laughing in his own home, according to The Huffington Post. Forty-two-year-old Robert Schiavelli, who suffers from a mental disability, was cited twice for “disturbing the peace” due to his loud laughter.
What was he laughing at? Allegedly, Schiavelli’s neighbor regularly calls him derogatory names and as a way of dealing with the taunts, Schiavelli laughs them off.
Underlying most bad prosecutions are bad statutes. That is exactly the case here. Schiavelli was charged with acting “in such a manner as to annoy, disturb, interfere with, obstruct, or be offensive to others.”
The Supreme Court has held that using “annoyance” as a factual basis for a criminal charge is unconstitutional. Coates v. Cincinnati held that the term “annoy” is unconstitutionally vague and is a violation of the First Amendment, stating:
Conduct that annoys some people does not annoy others. Thus, the ordinance is vague not in the sense that it requires a person to conform his conduct to an imprecise but comprehensible normative standard, but rather in the sense that no standard of conduct is specified at all. As a result, “men of common intelligence must necessarily guess at its meaning.”
It would be different if Schiavelli were being cited under a neutral noise ordinance, but here, the law he is charged with having violated makes no mention of the level of noise.
The local judge in the case has stated that he is “not so inclined” to dismiss it. Here, there is an unconstitutionally vague statute and harmless behavior. Common sense dictates that this is not something that should put someone in jail.
When asked about the citations, Schiavelli said, “I didn’t know it was a crime to laugh out a window.” A very sensible answer.
Do you still think you aren’t at risk of becoming a criminal? If you can go to jail for laughing in your own home, is there anything you can’t go to jail for?