State Supreme Court tosses county horn-honking limits as overly broad

OLYMPIA — The state Supreme Court in a split decision released Thursday has ruled that a Snohomish County’s noise ordinance limiting horn-honking is overbroad and could stifle speech protected under the First Amendment.

The court on Thursday overturned the 2006 misdemeanor conviction of a former Monroe woman prosecuted for honking her car horn on a Saturday morning outside a neighbor’s house.

“I think it was courageous. Other courts around the country have made decisions saying horn-honking isn’t speech. It was brave of the court to step out,” Lynnwood attorney John Tollefsen said.

Thursday’s decision comes after a five-year battle between Helen Immelt and Snohomish County.

The legal tussle began after Immelt received a letter from her homeowners association ordering her to stop raising chickens in her back yard. Prosecutors alleged that Immelt in response parked outside the association president’s home and laid on her horn for up to 10 minutes. The neighbor called police.

A Snohomish County sheriff’s sergeant testified that he warned Immelt not to honk her horn again. He arrested her a short time later after hearing three long blasts. A neighbor testified that Immelt honked her horn at him after he blew her a kiss.

Immelt told police the man made a vulgar gesture at her.

Two violations of the county’s ordinance within 24 hours can lead to a criminal citation.

Immelt was sentenced to 10 days in jail after a trial in Evergreen District Court. The state Court of Appeals in 2009 upheld the conviction, saying the First Amendment didn’t give Immelt the right to honk her car horn outside her neighbor’s home.

“Horn-honking per se is not free speech,” Judge C. Kenneth Grosse wrote in the 2009 opinion. “Horn-honking which is done to annoy or harass others is not speech.”

Unhappy with the court’s decision, Immelt asked the state Supreme Court to review the case.

“She wasn’t trying to make a statement. She was a scared mother and school teacher trying to stay out of jail,” Tollefsen said.

The justices heard arguments in 2010.

Snohomish County deputy prosecutor Charles Blackman argued that Immelt’s horn honking was not speech. She was using her horn to vex her neighbors.

“The defendant wants to talk about horn-honking at a political rally, but that’s not what she did,” Blackman said. “She blew her horn for over five minutes at 6 a.m. on a Saturday morning. She was warned not to do it, and then did it again.”

The county ordinance doesn’t ban all horn-honking, he added.

Until the case went to the state Supreme Court, Immelt has represented herself in court. Tollefsen agreed to take the case in the state’s highest court.

“Everyone knows honking is speech. Whether the horn is used to warn another driver, express frustration, or make a statement, it is used solely for communication,” Tollefsen wrote in a brief to the court.

People honk their car horns in support of U.S. military troops or to support a labor union on strike. Horns have been used to express opinions through the ages, Tollefsen said.

People have a right to express themselves as long as it doesn’t present a clear and present danger to others, he said.

In the 6-3 ruling, the Supreme Court justices concluded that the county’s noise ordinance “prohibits legitimate expressions of speech conveyed by a horn honk.”

The majority, however, said it didn’t have to decide if Immelt’s horn-honking was protected speech to overturn her conviction.

“An overbreadth challenge such as the one presented here does not require a showing that the specific conduct of the individual challenging the law constitutes speech,” Justice Debra L. Stephens wrote in the majority decision.

Three fellow justices disagreed with this conclusion, saying Immelt’s horn-honking was meant to annoy and harass.

“The proper course in this case is to examine Ms. Immelt’s own conduct,” Chief Justice Barbara A. Madsen wrote.

Snohomish County prosecutors on Thursday said they were still assessing if they will take additional action.

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

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