A Felon for a Facebook Post: The Abduction of Matthew Townsendby William Norman Grigg
Mar. 24, 2015
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Matthew Townsend was made an offender for using a sidewalk without a police officer’s permission, and then accused of a felony for publishing a Facebook post about the incident.
“Apparently, holding a protest sign, or condemning government abuse on Facebook, is enough to make somebody a terrorist now,” Matthew wearily observes.
A small, wiry man with a luxuriant beard and a contemplative demeanor, Matthew is gainfully employed in Meridian, Idaho as a cook. That is to say, he feeds people, rather than feeding upon them. His abductor, Officer Richard Brockbank of the Meridian Police Department, makes neither butter, nor shoes, nor poetry; instead, he makes “offenders” out of people who have done no injury to anybody.
On the evening of February 2, Matthew – a part-time liberty activist – was conducting a one-man protest outside the local branch office of the oxymoronically named Liberty Tax Service. That company often pays people to publicize its services by standing on a sidewalk dressed as the Statue of Liberty.
A devout believer in the principle of truth in advertising, Matthew attired himself in a Grim Reaper costume holding a protest sign. One side bore the inscription “Taxes [do not equal] liberty”; the other pointed out that “Taxes fund terrorism.”
“An officer pulled up and told me that I had to get out of the road, and that I couldn’t be blocking traffic,” Matthew recalled during an interview in his home. “He tried to get me to agree with him that I was blocking traffic. And I didn’t. He asked me for my name; I gave him my name. He asked me for my ID; I told him I didn’t have it on me.”
The officer, later identified as Richard Brockbank, continued to “build the stop” – that is to say, probing for an excuse to arrest someone who had not committed an actual crime.
“He asked me if I had been drinking and … kept trying to get me to agree with him that I was blocking traffic,” Matthew continued. “He said, `Well, I saw you.’ I said, `Then charge me.’ And he was silent – just stops, silent. I turned around and hit the button [on the crosswalk signal light]. It said `Go,’ so I started crossing. Half-way across the intersection he starts yelling that he’s not done with me. I stopped on the next corner. He walked over there, and other officers pulled up, and I got arrested.”
At least two other officers responded to Brockbank’s urgent call for assistance. As he conversed with his supervisor, another officer took the opportunity to lecture Matthew about his civic responsibilities.
“He told me that I need to read the Constitution,” Matthew told me. Either out of politeness or a prudent desire not to antagonize his captor, Matthew refrained from pointing out that he has probably forgotten more about that document than the officer has ever learned.
Although he doesn’t recall having any previous interactions with the officers who kidnapped him on February 2, he said it was “extremely likely” that such contacts had occurred.
“I’ve recorded hundreds of interactions with cops just here in Meridian,” Matthew notes, many of them occurring within a few blocks of his house – which until he became a part-time Cop Watch activist had been an exceptionally lucrative ambush spot for the blue-suited banditti.
“They used to hide out behind Les Schwab [a nearby tire store] and pull people over,” Matthew observes. “They don’t go there anymore because they know I’ll walk out there with a camera.”
His pickup truck prominently displays an “Ada County Copwatch” bumper sticker, and a few years ago Matthew organized a campaign to recall Ada County Sheriff Gary Raney. During last year’s election, Townsend paid a small filing fee to become a candidate for the position of Ada County Coroner. His campaign consisted of displaying a single sign in his front yard that attracted national press attention.
Previously, Matthew ran for the Meridian City Council in the hope of making police officers more accountable to the public. Since becoming a Cop Watch activist in 2010, Matthew has made himself locally conspicuous and has done nothing to disguise or attenuate his entirely commendable contempt for the process of armed revenue-harvesting.
“If you are unfortunate to encounter an initiator of violence this evening, please remember to check their ID so you know it’s okay for them to kill you,” he advised New Year’s Eve revelers in a YouTube video. “It would be a shame to be killed by a costumed thug who was only pretending to be an official costumed thug.”
At no point during the February 2 encounter did Matthew offer any resistance, nor did he “obstruct” Brockbank in any way – unless a refusal to admit to a non-existent offense qualifies for that description.
No statute requires a citizen to agree with a police officer, admit to an accusation made by one, or to stand in rapt, docile silence waiting for permission to leave when an officer has refused to charge him with a crime. Brockbank’s attempt to detain Matthew was rooted in a sense of proprietary privilege, not the law.
Matthew had every legal right to leave, but Brockbank was a State-commissioned agent of aggressive violence who couldn’t countenance a perceived slight to his “authority.”
“I was arrested for `contempt of cop,’” Matthew wryly – and correctly – concludes.
His kidnappers demanded a $300 ransom – or, as they would insist on calling it, “bond” – and designated March 19 as the date for a court hearing to validate the abduction.
On the eve of that pretrial hearing, Matthew posted a notice on his Facebook page describing Brockbank’s actions as “terroristic in nature and in other ways unconstitutional and criminal.”
“The cop refused to charge me for said `crime’ that he was accusing me of and so I walked away,” he explained, “and was soon after kidnapped and hauled away by several costumed State goons for my disrespect of officer Brockbank's harassment towards me.”
Given that the charge against him was entirely devoid of merit, Matthew continued, he would seek its dismissal. If this didn’t happen, he advised, “I will begin a non-violent and legal shame campaign that will be remembered. HOA [Home Owners Association]`upsets,’ protests in the aggressors neighborhoods (I know where you all live- this is notification of knowledge and future protests, not a threat), mailers, door hangers, online ads, local and (hopefully) national media- I've done it before and I can do it again as well as other peaceful, but... annoying avenues will commence.”
Nothing in that post constituted a threat or an incitement to violence. It was a pure exercise of what we are told is the constitutionally protected right to petition for a redress of grievances – in this case, armed abduction under color of “law.” When Matthew showed up for his hearing a few hours later, however, his court-appointed attorney informed him that the Ada County Sheriff’s Office was prepared to arrest him at the courthouse.
Matthew’s Facebook post was being treated as a “terroristic threat” – and a warrant was sworn out by Meridian Police Officer Shannon Taylor accusing him of “attempted intimidation of a states [sic] witness.”
The post was tagged to dozens of people and Facebook pages – including many mainstream and independent media outlets. Ironically, the sole “witness” to Matthew’s purported offense, and supposed victim of his alleged threat, was not among those tagged in the post.
“I put the `at’ sign in my post on Facebook and I tagged the Brockbanks that showed up on my phone,” Matthew recalls. Officer Brockbank apparently doesn’t have a Facebook page, so “he wouldn’t have seen the post unless it was sent to him by a friend or a relative.”
During the March 19 hearing, “the prosecutor told the judge that new information was discovered, and they wanted to increase my bond and charge me with [the] felony [of] intimidating a witness,” Matthew recalls. District Judge James Cawthon, presiding at the hearing, apparently considered the charge to be risible: “He wouldn’t allow the no-contact order to go through at that moment, or the other charges.”
However, the Meridian PD and prosecutor’s office approached another judge in an ex parte proceeding and obtained both an arrest warrant and no-content order. That judge’s identity remains a mystery: The affidavit and warrant were immediately placed under a judicial seal, and the signature on the no-contact order is an indecipherable scrawl.
That order forbids Matthew to come within 100 feet of the pitiable being known as Officer Richard Brockbank. The warrant was executed at a time, and in a fashion, best suited to the purpose of intimidation.
“When I heard the knock, I was asleep, and the dogs went crazy,” Matthew relates. The dogs were “my biggest concern” – a fact made obvious by the notice posted on his front door advising police officers that his dogs are harmless and instructing any visiting cops not to shoot them on a whim.
“It was totally dark outside” when three Ada County deputies arrived and told Matthew they had a warrant for his arrest. He walked up to the front door and placed his hands out to be cuffed.
“They tried some silly things to get permission to search the house,” he noted with a disgusted chuckle. “I didn’t give it to them. I know their game better than that.”
Denied the opportunity to discover or plant “evidence,” the deputies had to be satisfied with seizing and transporting a political prisoner in a fashion worthy of their Soviet forebears.
Under Idaho Criminal Rule 41, an arrest warrant “shall be served in the daytime, unless the issuing authority, by appropriate provision in the warrant, and for reasonable cause shown, authorizes its execution at times other than daytime.” Since the timid, paling specimen known as Officer Richard Brockbank was already cowering in the shelter of a protection order, the nighttime arrest couldn’t be justified as a protective measure.
Additionally, as the Idaho Supreme Court pointed out in its 2011 ruling in Idaho v. Skurlock, 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.”
Analyzing the question from the perspective of “officer safety,” the most important policy consideration in the known universe, the Court also advised that 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 choice to execute the arrest warrant on a Friday night had nothing to do with the severity of Matthew’s purported offense, or the safety of the officers who took him to jail. The psychological purpose of a night-time arrest of this kind was limned memorably by Solzhenitsyn:
“The Universe has as many different centers as there are living beings in it. Each of us is a center of the Universe, and that Universe is shattered when they hiss at you: `You are under arrest.’”
An individual dragged from the warmth and security of his bed and taken away, shackled, in the darkness by armed strangers is supposed to feel tiny, powerless, and insignificant. These conditions are intended to demonstrate the hopelessness of someone fed into the apparatus of violence and misery called the State.
When this is done on a Friday evening, the expectation is that the victim will spend an entire weekend in a government cage, under the scrutiny of, and subject to, the whims of State-licensed dispensers of violence.
Or, as summarized in marginally literate fashion by a contemporary police apologist: “They are the repo men, you're the car. Shut the f*ck up and get towed and the court is your only recourse." The point of yanking a person from his home and imprisoning him at night is to assert the State’s ownership over him, and the ease with which everything can be taken from him – including his life.
Unlike the functionaries who seized and caged him, Matthew has an honest job – one he may have lost if his mother hadn’t been able to pay a significant fraction of $25,000 bail that had been imposed on him as an accused felon.
Owing to his mother’s sacrificial intervention, Matt was at work just a few hours after his most recent abduction, serving the community preyed upon by the people who are trying to send him to prison without a particle of justification.
Matthew’s arraignment on the “intimidation” charge – which is a patently transparent act of official retaliation – is scheduled for March 25. His trial for “resisting and obstruction charge” – or, more honestly described, contempt of cop – is slated to begin on June 4th. His court-appointed attorney is trying to persuade him to waive his right to a trial by jury and settle for a bench trial. Matthew doesn’t appear interested in that option, nor should he be, in my view.
Juries in Idaho, as elsewhere in the soyuz, tend to be much too deferential to prosecutors. The case against Matthew involves such exuberant claims of official privilege – and such obvious malice --that it might trigger the gag reflex of an Idaho jury. It could also precipitate an avalanche of well-earned public ridicule for the incurably self-important people responsible for this travesty, beginning with the bold and valiant – yet oddly timid and fragile – Officer Richard Brockbank.
Matthew’s case brings to mind one salient fact that has emerged from the miasma of racial politics in Ferguson, Missouri. The municipal police department in that town operated a seamless racket in which minor misconduct was monetized for the benefit of the city government.
In December 2014, roughly seventy-five percent of the town’s residents were the subject of arrest warrants. In 2013, there were 1.5 offenses per city resident in Ferguson – not because the city was beset with actual crime, but rather because of what one commentator correctly calls the “gangsterish `shakedown’ methods” of the city’s police department and court system.
Ferguson police were vividly aware of opportunities to issue citations that would harvest revenue from the poor on behalf of the local political elite – and they never let such an opportunity elude them.
Matthew Townsend’s experience was a product of the same predatory policing. Out of a non-existent “offense,” Meridian’s municipal plunderbund has already extracted thousands of dollars from Matthew and his mother, and they intend to turn the handle on the wringer until they have extorted the utmost farthing.
In Matthew’s case, the casual cruelty that typifies this system has been replaced with an obvious determination to destroy someone whose commitment to principle and civic activism have made him an unbearable nuisance. His abductors would take great satisfaction in crushing a Copwatcher.
Photo by A.J. Ellis
William Norman Grigg [send him mail] publishes the Pro Libertate blog and hosts the Pro Libertate radio program.