A Howard County Circuit Court judge has denied a request by attorneys for two local teens to drop hate crime-related charges on the basis that racial slurs and swastikas found scrawled on Glenelg High School grounds in May were constitutionally protected free speech.
“I think this would be a much more compelling argument if we were talking about your clients had allegedly sprayed their own homes with these obnoxious messages,” Judge Timothy J. McCrone said in court Tuesday. “I welcome them to do that at their parents’ home.”
Four Glenelg High School seniors were charged with hate crimes and other offenses after swastikas and racial epithets, including one police said targeted the school’s principal, were found spray painted on the school’s parking lot, sidewalks and exterior walls May 24.
Matthew Lipp, 18, of Woodbine and Tyler Curtiss, 18, of Brookeville are two of the four teens charged. This month their attorneys — Brian Thompson and Mark Muffoletto, respectively — filed separate motions to dismiss three counts related to religious or race harassment.
All four of the teens are charged with seven-count indictments, all misdemeanors. In addition to the hate crime charges, they also face two counts related to destruction of property-related and two trespassing counts. The four could face up to three years behind bars and a $5,000 fine on the most serious charges.
The attorneys for Lipp and Curtiss had argued that the hate crime charges were based on alleged violations of a state criminal code against animosity aimed a person or groups because of race, color, sexual orientation, disability, gender, religious beliefs, national origin or homelessness.
As part of their arguments, theycited a 1992 Supreme Court ruling in a Minnesota case involving free-speech rights. In that case, a group of teenagers allegedly constructed a cross by taping broken chair legs together, and burned it in a black family’s yard. The high court ruled it was unconstitutional to charge them with a bias-motivated crime, in part due to free speech protections.
Melissa Montgomery, an assistant Howard County state’s attorney, said in court that the Glenelg defense attorneys were attempting to “pigeon-hole the Maryland hate crimes law” by comparing it to the Minnesota case.
And the judge said the two teens “shed their First Amendment [rights]” when they coupled their ideas with the act of defacing school property.
Outside the courtroom, Thompson said: “I respectfully disagree with the court's decision and strongly suspect this case will end up in the appellate court.”
“It’s always tough when we are making constitutional arguments,” Muffoletto said after the decision. “Most of our precious rights come from the most egregious circumstances, and that’s when they need to be protected the most.”
Both attorneys said they will seek their clients’ case to be heard in state appeals courts.
In the courtroom Tuesday the defense and the county’s state’s attorneys all shook hands before exiting the courtroom. Muffoletto said “we have tremendous respect for the court,” despite the decision.
He added that he is still talking with prosecutors about “any possible resolution short of trial.”
Lipp, wearing a black suit, a sky blue shirt and a tie, and Curtiss, also wearing a black suit, a white shirt and a blue striped tie, sat next to their respective attorneys during the motions hearing. Neither made a statement nor addressed McCrone.
Curtiss, Lipp, and 19-year-olds Joshua Shaffer of Mount Airy and Seth Taylor of Glenwood all graduated from Glenelg High School but did not walk in the graduation ceremony, according to a county schools spokesman. The four had completed all graduation requirements prior to the May 24 incident.
Shaffer and Taylor appeared in court last month where the potential of separate plea offers first surfaced publicly. The specifics of the pleas have not been announced, and plea hearings for the two are scheduled for Dec. 27.
Thompson said previously that a plea agreement was made to Lipp but it was rejected. It remains unclear if Curtiss received a plea offer. Lipp and Curtiss are scheduled to appear in court for trials in February and January, respectively.