Monroe honking case makes it to state Supreme Court

MONROE — A former Monroe woman once jailed over honking her horn during a neighborhood squabble over chickens is taking her fight against Snohomish County’s noise rules to the state Supreme Court.

Helen Immelt contends that the county trampled on her First Amendment rights when she was arrested in 2006 for honking her horn at her Monroe-area neighbors. Immelt was sentenced to 10 days in jail for violating the county’s noise ordinance after a three-day trial in Evergreen District Court.

She fought the conviction but the state Court of Appeals in June upheld the decision.

The court ruled that the First Amendment didn’t given Immelt the right to lay on her car horn for 10 minutes on a Saturday morning in front of a neighbor’s house or honk at another neighbor after she was warned by police she was out of line.

Immelt was accused of honking at neighbors because she was ticked off that they complained to the homeowner’s association about the chickens she had roosting in her back yard.

“Horn honking per se is not free speech,” Justice C. Kenneth Grosse wrote in the June opinion. “Horn honking which is done to annoy or harass others is not speech.”

Immelt was unhappy with the court’s decision. She asked the state Supreme Court to review the case.

Late last week, the state’s highest court agreed to examine the arguments.

“I felt that in their haste to fashion a witty opinion, the Court of Appeals failed to even address serious arguments that I had made regarding the Constitutional issues,” Immelt said. “I do feel that the Snohomish County ordinance criminalizes protected speech activities regardless of how people view what happened to me, and that is why I continue to fight on. The fact that the Supreme Court granted review recognizes that the issues I presented are both real and substantial but is no predictor of the final outcome.”

Immelt has argued that the county’s noise ordinance is too broad and vague. She contended she was honking her horn to express herself, similar to someone honking in support of U.S. troops or a sports team.

According to county rules horn honking is a public disturbance unless the horn is used for public safety purposes. Two violations within 24 hours can lead to a criminal citation.

A Snohomish County sheriff’s deputy warned Immelt not to honk at her neighbors after they reported that she laid on her horn outside the house of a man who complained about the chickens in her back yard. The homeowner’s association had sent Immelt a letter advising her to get rid of the birds.

The sergeant warned Immelt if she continued to blow her horn, he’d arrest her. Later he saw Immelt pull out of her driveway and heard three long blasts. He stopped her car. Immelt told the officer she was responding to a neighbor giving her a vulgar gesture. She was arrested.

Snohomish County deputy prosecutor Charles Blackman argued that Immelt’s horn honking wasn’t speech. She was using her horn to harm and retaliate against neighbors. The county ordinance doesn’t ban all horn honking, he said.

The state Court of Appeals agreed and found that under the circumstances Immelt’s horn honking wasn’t conveying a readily understandable message.

Blackman wasn’t surprised the higher court agreed to hear the case.

“As a society we are concerned about the First Amendment rights and not chilling them. Courts will consider First Amendment issues in the abstract even when the facts of the particular case don’t seem to warrant it,” Blackman said. “There’s nothing wrong with a society paying special attention to the First Amendment because we value open and free speech so much.”

Blackman is expected to face off against Immelt for a third time. She plans to represent herself again.

“Needless to say as a non-lawyer, I am both excited and scared to death by the prospect of arguing this case before the Justices of our Supreme Court,” Immelt wrote.

Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463; hefley@heraldnet.com.

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