The Persecution of Rita Hutchens

Sandpoint, Idaho resident Rita Hutchens is an opinionated 57-year-old quilt artist whose work has earned her international notoriety. Given that Hutchens is also an outspoken proponent of constitutionalist views, it’s possible that some people have taken issue with her political opinions.

Hutchens has never harmed or threatened another human being. Yet local officials, led by Bonner County Deputy Prosecutor Shane Greenbank – an inventively dishonest official – are trying to make a criminal out of her. Failing that, they might simply seek to have her imprisoned indefinitely in a psych ward.

Around midnight on April 16, three Bonner County Sheriff’s Deputies invaded Rita’s home while she was asleep and half-clothed on her living room sofa. The deputies were enforcing a bench warrant issued several weeks earlier after Hutchens had failed to appear for a preliminary hearing on a misdemeanor charge.

In Idaho, as elsewhere, it is exceptionally rare for police to serve warrants after sundown. In its ruling in the 2011 case Idaho v. Skurlock, the Idaho Supreme Court recognized that at night time people “have a heightened expectation of privacy that should not be disturbed by a knock on the door and the presentation of a search warrant.” In addition, executing a warrant at night “increases the likelihood of violence because nighttime searches cause an abrupt intrusion on sleeping occupants in a home, thus increasing the potential for a violent reaction from the occupants.”

The bold and valiant deputies who kicked in Rita Hutchens’s door at midnight acted in the serene confidence that they had no reason to expect a violent reaction on the part of their terrified victim.

The officials responsible for the Stasi-style midnight raid maintain that there was an element of urgency because she is suspected of a violent crime, to wit: battery on a city official at Sandpoint City Hall last August 12. If they are in a particularly creative mood, city authorities might embellish that charge by saying that it involved an impact weapon.

The implement of mayhem allegedly employed by Hutchens in the supposed assault on Deputy Clerk Melissa Ward was not a club, a set of brass knuckles, or throwing stars. It was a ballpoint pen.

No, really.

Furthermore, according to the sober and dutiful public servants who witnessed the attack, Hutchens did not hurl that potentially death-dealing projectile at Ward; instead, she threw it down on a tabletop, and the terrorized agent of the public weal was injured by a ricochet.

Somehow, Ward stoically fought through her trauma and finished her shift without being treated by paramedics. Significantly, although she did fill out a police report, Ward never swore out a criminal complaint.

Hutchens filed a subpoena demanding that Ward, the alleged victim, provide a sworn and signed criminal complaint.

Last November 14, the Idaho First District Court granted a motion by Sandpoint City Attorney Scott Campbell to quash that subpoena, ruling that “requiring Ms. Ward, the victim in this matter, to provide a signed complaint is unreasonable.”

What this means is that there is no victim of record in the August 12 “battery” incident, and no criminal intent behind Hutchens’s actions – unless, of course, Greenbank wants to pretend that this middle-aged woman deviously set up a bank-shot for the purpose of wounding the clerk. On the basis of his behavior toward Hutchens – another example of which we will examine anon – I’m convinced that Greenbank and his comrades possess sufficient cynicism to make that claim.

The patently spurious nature of the charge against Hutchens is brought into focus once it’s understood why she had visited City Hall: She was there to review public records related to an incident in 2011 in which she was assaulted and illegally arrested by Sandpoint police officer Theresa Heberer.

At the time of her encounter with Officer Heberer, Hutchens was in the middle of evicting a deadbeat tenant (who, as it happened, had been arrested the previous day on outstanding warrants). She visited her property to determine if the power and water had been shut off. When Hutchens drove by the property – making two passes when she saw the renter talking with Officer Heberer – the tenant claimed that Hutchens had been “stalking” or “harassing” her. On the basis of that complaint from a manifestly unreliable source, Heberer got into her patrol vehicle and followed Hutchens to her home.

Heberer demanded that Hutchens submit to an interrogation. Hutchens, who didn’t want to be bothered by a police officer – what decent and rational person would? – replied that she had nothing to say, invoked the Fifth Amendment, and turned to enter her home. Heberer responded by committing criminal trespass, then compounded that crime by seizing Hutchens and violently throwing her to the ground.

When her supervisor arrived on the scene, Heberer claimed that the encounter began with a traffic stop dealing with an expired registration. This was a lie, of course. Seeking to find some charge to justify the criminal violence inflicted on Hutchens, Heberer and her supervisor pored over the statute book and eventually decided to charge the victim with “resisting and obstructing” a police officer.

That charge was entirely without merit – a fact recognized by Magistrate Judge Barbara Buchanan when she threw it out of court.

“There was no reason to touch her,” Judge Buchanan observed. “She did not have to answer [Officer Heberer’s] questions. She has a Fifth Amendment right not to do that…. You can’t be charged with resisting and obstructing for exercising your Fifth Amendment right, and she did have every right to say, `I don’t want to answer your questions, I want to go in my house.’ There is no basis for an arrest, there is no reason for a search warrant.”

Unlike Melissa Ward, Hutchens was physically harmed by Heberer’s assault, in addition to suffering the indelible injury of being handcuffed and unlawfully detained. She filed a $250,000 damage claim with the City of Sandpoint, which was rejected by Idaho Counties Risk Management Program. So she filed a notice of tort claim announcing her intention to sue the city for violating her civil rights.

It was in preparation for that lawsuit that Hutchens was researching public records at City Hall on August. As she did so, she was followed by a city official who carried a digital recorder and may well have been trying to bait her into some kind of actionable misconduct.

As Sgt. Riffel noted in his official report of the incident, “Rita Hutchens… has a fairly tense relationship with the City, and has pending lawsuits against them.”

Had he possessed a particle of moral discernment and a rudimentary sense of honor, Riffel would have recognized that the battery complaint was an act of petty retaliation against a citizen regarded as an irritant. His reaction should have been to shake his head in disgust, put away his notebook, and tell the “victim” and her cronies to behave like adults. But this would have meant defending the rights of a Mundane, which would be impermissible.

Accordingly, Riffel – acting in the interests of Tax Feeder solidarity – filed his report and swore out the probable cause affidavit.

The criminal complaint against Hutchens, which was composed by Greenbank, is a masterpiece of bureaucratic hyperbole. It claims that Hutchens “did willfully and unlawfully use force or violence upon the person of Melissa Ward by striking Ward with a pen, or, in the alternative, did actually, intentionally, and unlawfully touch or strike the person of Melissa Ward against her will by striking Ward with a pen.” This, sniffs Greenbank with the practiced pomposity of a pampered parasite, was a grave offense “against the peace and dignity of the State of Idaho.”

Ward suffered no injury. There is no evidence that Hutchens intended to do her any harm. By way of contrast, judicial notice has been taken of the incontrovertible fact that Officer Theresa Heberer did “willfully and unlawfully use force or violence” upon the person of Rita Hutchens in an assault that did injure the victim.

It is precisely because Hutchens is seeking redress for the criminal violence she suffered at the hands of Heberer and her comrades that Greenbank – acting on behalf of the local political class – is seeking to imprison her.

As his florid description of Hutchens’s purported offense demonstrates, Greenbank is a bit of a drama queen. This got him into trouble in his last gig, during which he afflicted the residents of neighboring Kootenai County. During opening arguments in a September 2008 domestic violence trial, Greenbank – who at the time was Deputy Prosecutor for Kootenai County – broke down in tears and theatrically asked for a tissue as he recounted the alleged crimes of the defendant.

This display left First District Judge Fred Gilber thoroughly unimpressed. Chastising Greenbank for trying to manipulate the jury, Gilber declared a mistrial. Predictably, Greenbank’s initial reaction was to lie, insisting that he hadn’t been crying and certainly had “no intent to appeal to the passions of the jury.” However, the trial transcript documents that he admitted, “I did have tears running down my face, I did have snot running down my face.”

Nor was this the first time that Greenback or his colleagues had sought to manipulate a jury. As he declared a mistrial, Judge Gilber pointed out: “In [a] recent case the Court of Appeals has singled out the Kootenai County Prosecutor’s Office for appealing to the passions or prejudice of the jury.”

For the last six months, Hutchens has been acting as her own attorney.

Greenbank, who has no appropriate credentials, claims that she has exhibited “unusually behaviors and affects – both in court and in her filings. It is evident that her mood is changeable, and her thoughts are disorganized.” He filed, and was granted, a motion ordering Hutchens to undergo a mandatory psychological evaluation.

Embedded in that May 2 order is a remarkable claim that was introduced by Magistrate Judge Debra Heise without a particle of supporting evidence. Listed among the examples of Hutchens’s “unusual behaviors and affects” was the act of “battering the assigned prosecuting attorney [Greenbank] outside of court when he served papers to her in the clerk’s office….”

That description would lead the untutored reader to assume that Rita Hutchens, a 57-year-old woman who stands about 5’1″ and weighs all of 110 pounds, boldly attacked the intrepid paladin of the public weal in full view of witnesses, and somehow managed to avoid being dragged away in chains.

What actually happened was that Greenbank shoved a sheaf of legal papers in Hutchens’s face – and she replied in kind by shoving them right back at him. In other words, just as she had “battered” Melissa Ward by accidentally striking her in the arm with a ballpoint pen, she “battered” Shane Greenbank by pushing papers at him. Although this would hardly be enough to injure a child, it should be acknowledged that on Greenbank’s previous performance, trivial contact of this kind would be quite enough to make him cry.

It should also be noted that Greenbank’s sense of moral outrage over crimes of violence is oddly adaptable. While he is treating Rita Hutchens as if she were a public menace, last August he agreed to a plea bargain by a man accused of hog-tying one handicapped 12-year-old child, and choking another one. The assailant in that case agreed to misdemeanor charges that led to a total of two weeks in jail.

The May 2 order for Hutchens to undergo a mental evaluation specifies that Dr. Carl Haugan, a “designated licensed psychiatrist,” will file a report on Hutchens’s mental condition by May 23. If she refuses to cooperate, the order explains, “the report shall so state and shall include, if possible, an opinion as to whether such unwillingness of the defendant was the result of mental disease or defect.”

Judge Heise – whose trough is filled with a $107,043 annual salary plundered from more honest people in the private sector – clearly sought to prejudice the evaluation by imputing to Hutchens, as a matter of record, “unusual behaviors and affects” as well as a tendency toward “violence” – as supposedly demonstrated in the two instances of “battery.” If, on the other hand, Hutchens refused to submit to an evaluation foreordained to find her incompetent, her refusal is to be taken as proof of her mental incapacity.

Not surprisingly, Hutchens has refused to play her scripted role in this cynical charade – in defiance of threats to have her arrested and jailed for defying the court order. If Hutchens were taken into state custody, it’s entirely possible that Greenbank would seek to have her involuntarily committed for psychiatric treatment. While thus detained, she would be unable to pursue her lawsuit against the City of Sandpoint – which is almost certainly the point of this entire campaign of official persecution.