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UNITED STATES v. LYNCH

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK


January 10, 1997

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff, against GEORGE LYNCH AND CHRISTOPHER MOSCINSKI, Defendants.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: SPRIZZO

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

 SPRIZZO, D.J.:

 The Government brings the above-captioned criminal contempt proceeding against defendants George Lynch and Christopher Moscinski. For the reasons that follow, the Court finds defendants not guilty.

 BACKGROUND

 The following facts, as set forth in a stipulation signed by the parties, are undisputed. See Stipulation ("Stip.") (undated) attached to Government's Letter Brief dated November 5, 1996, and submitted to the Court at the Trial held on October 15, 1996.

 On February 23, 1996, the Court entered a permanent injunction in United States v. Lynch and Moscinski, 95 Civ. 9223 (JES), which provided:

 

IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that defendants George Lynch and Christopher Moscinski, their agents, and all individuals acting in concert with defendants or their agents, are permanently enjoined from violating, or aiding and abetting the violation of, the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act of 1994, 18 U.S.C. § 248, in any way, including but not being limited to:

 

1. impeding or obstructing automotive or any other form of ingress into, or egress from, the Women's Medical Pavilion in Dobbs Ferry, New York; and

 

2. attempting to take -- in inducing, encouraging, directing, aiding, or abetting in any manner others to take -- any of the actions set forth in subparagraph 1 of this order.

 Order Imposing Permanent Injunction dated February 23, 1996.

 On August 24, 1996, at approximately 7:30 a.m., officers from the Dobbs Ferry Police Department were called to the Women's Medical Pavilion (the "Clinic") in Dobbs Ferry, New York, where Lynch and Moscinski were seated in the Clinic's driveway. Stip. at 2. At approximately 7:50 a.m., after observing several vehicles unsuccessfully attempt to enter the parking lot, officers warned Lynch and Moscinski that they were violating the law, and that if they did not leave the area immediately, they would be arrested. Id. Lynch and Moscinski acknowledged the warning and remained seated. Id. The officers then arrested Lynch and Moscinski, who upon being arrested, went "limp" and were carried to a bus for transport to the police station. Id.

 Lynch and Moscinski acknowledged that at the time they sat in the Clinic's driveway they knew of the Court's injunction, and knew that they were enjoined from "'impeding or obstructing automotive or any other form of ingress into, or egress from, the [Clinic].'" Stip. at 2.

 On September 6, 1996, the Government charged Lynch and Moscinski with contempt of the Court's February 23, 1996 Order Imposing Permanent Injunction. See Notice of Charge.

 On October 15, 1996, the Court held a trial and heard testimony from Lynch and Moscinski. The Court also viewed and received into evidence a video-tape recording of defendants' actions at the Clinic the morning of the incident. *fn1"

 DISCUSSION

 Because the parties agree to the facts as set forth in their stipulation, the Court deems those facts established and incorporates them into its findings.

 The Court further finds, and it has not been disputed, that Lynch and Moscinski acted out of a sense of conscience and sincere religious conviction. Any further inquiry into the validity of their beliefs is foreclosed by the First Amendment. See United States v. Seeger, 380 U.S. 163, 185, 13 L. Ed. 2d 733, 85 S. Ct. 850 (1965) (in connection with section 6(j) of the Selective Service Laws, the truth of a belief is not open to question, rather, the question is whether the objector's beliefs are truly held); Jolly v. Coughlin, 76 F.3d 468, 476 (2d Cir. 1996) (court may only inquire whether claimant sincerely holds a particular belief and whether that belief is religious in nature); International Soc'y For Krishna Consciousness, Inc. v. Barber, 650 F.2d 430, 439 (2d Cir. 1981) (court will investigate adherent's sincerity and will invoke free exercise analysis where belief is asserted and acted upon in good faith).

 The Court asked the parties to brief whether it is a defense to a criminal contempt charge that a person act with a sincere religious belief that he is acting to save a human life. The Government, in its letter brief to the Court, cites a variety of cases from other circuit courts holding that abortion protesters, as a matter of law, are not entitled to a necessity defense. See Government's Letter Brief dated November 5, 1996, citing, inter alia, United States v. Turner, 44 F.3d 900, 901-03 (10th Cir.), cert. denied, 132 L. Ed. 2d 258, 115 S. Ct. 2250 (1995) (holding, as a matter of law, that necessity defense does not apply to abortion protesters who violate preliminary injunction); Zal v. Steppe, 968 F.2d 924, 929-30 (9th Cir.), cert. denied, 506 U.S. 1021, 121 L. Ed. 2d 582, 113 S. Ct. 656 (1992) (trial court's evidentiary orders excluding necessity, defense of others, and mistake of fact defenses did not violate 6th or 14th Amendments); Roe v. Operation Rescue, 919 F.2d 857, 869-70 (3d Cir. 1990) (affirming exclusion of medical evidence regarding fetuses which would have been used to support justification defense in civil contempt charge); Northeast Women's Center, Inc. v. McMonagle, 868 F.2d 1342, 1350-52 (3d Cir.), cert. denied, 493 U.S. 901, 107 L. Ed. 2d 210, 110 S. Ct. 261 (1989) (affirming exclusion of evidence relating to justification defense to civil RICO and state trespass claims). *fn2"

 There is no authority in this Circuit dealing precisely with this issue. In one state case a court did instruct a jury that the defendants could present and argue New York's justification statute, New York Penal Law § 35.05, so long as the jury found that the medical group at issue was about to perform other than first trimester abortions. See People v. Archer, 143 Misc. 2d 390, 537 N.Y.S.2d 726 (1988). The court reasoned that a jury is free to decide, under New York's justification statute, whether abortions are immoral "'injuries to be avoided'" and whether "'the urgency of avoiding such injuries clearly outweighs the desirability of avoiding injuries such as Trespassing and Resisting Arrest,' which the criminal statutes in issue" were designed to prevent. 537 N.Y.S.2d at 732. The court further determined that New York's justification statute could not be asserted for conduct directed towards first-trimester abortions because such state regulation would be preempted by Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113, 35 L. Ed. 2d 147, 93 S. Ct. 705 (1973). 537 N.Y.S.2d at 733-34.

 Two other state cases declined to apply New York's justification statute. See People v. Bauer, 161 Misc. 2d 588, 614 N.Y.S.2d 871, 873 (1994) (finding the defense of justification under Penal Law § 35.05 does not apply in case of defendant who blocked door to doctor's office in attempt to persuade women not to have abortions and who was charged with trespass and resisting arrest); People v. Crowley, 142 Misc. 2d 663, 538 N.Y.S.2d 146 (1989) (precluding justification or necessity defense for conduct directed towards legal abortions because the injury sought to be prevented has been awarded legal protection by the New York legislature and the United States Supreme Court).

  In this case, the record is unclear whether abortions beyond the first-trimester were performed in the Clinic at issue. Since abortions are legal in New York beyond the first trimester, see N.Y. Penal Law § 125.05 (McKinney 1987), there is a reasonable inference that the justification defense might be available in New York with respect to late abortions. It is interesting to note that the New York State Senate passed a bill in April, 1996, to ban partial birth abortions. See Ken Moritsugu, NY Senate: Ban Some Abortions But 'Partial-Birth' Law Unlikely, Newsday, May 1, 1996. Although the Assembly voted to shelve that bill, see Shannon McCaffrey, Close Abortion Vote in Assembly Worries Abortion Rights Advocates, The Associated Press Political Service, December 19, 1996, if anything, the parameters of the justification defense with respect to this issue may ultimately be enlarged. *fn3"

 However, the Court need not resolve this issue because the Court finds beyond a reasonable doubt that neither Lynch nor Moscinski acted with the willfulness which criminal contempt requires. See United States v. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp., 882 F.2d 656, 659 (2d Cir. 1989), cert. denied, 493 U.S. 1021, 107 L. Ed. 2d 741, 110 S. Ct. 722 (1990) (criminal contempt sanctions may be imposed only if it is proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the contemnor willfully violated the specific and definite terms of a court order); S.E.C. v. American Bd. Of Trade, Inc., 830 F.2d 431, 439 (2d Cir. 1987), cert. denied, 485 U.S. 938, 108 S. Ct. 1118, 99 L. Ed. 2d 278 (1988) (same).

 In United States v. Sisson, 399 U.S. 267, 26 L. Ed. 2d 608, 90 S. Ct. 2117 (1970), the Supreme Court addressed a fact situation in which a person who had refused to seek a conscientious-objector classification, also refused to submit to induction and was prosecuted for that offense. The defendant, Sisson, argued in pre-trial motions that the Vietnam War was immoral and that he did not feel he could, in good conscience, claim a conscientious-objector status, because he was not opposed to all wars but just opposed to that war. Id. at 271-75. The district court instructed the jury to determine whether Sisson's refusal to submit to induction was "'unlawfully knowingly and willfully' done." Id. at 276.

 After the jury found Sisson guilty, the district court set the verdict aside on a motion to arrest judgment, concluding that Sisson's sincere moral belief precluded his conviction for the offense charged. Id. at 277-78. The government unsuccessfully sought to appeal the decision on the ground that it was not an acquittal. Id. at 279-308. The Supreme Court rejected the government's argument holding that since the district court had gone outside the indictment and considered evidence at trial in concluding that Sisson's sincere moral belief precluded Sisson's conviction, it was in fact a judgment of acquittal that could not be appealed. Id.

 In this case, the Court finds as a matter of fact that Lynch's and Moscinski's sincere, genuine, objectively based and, indeed, conscience-driven religious belief, precludes a finding of willfulness. Willful conduct, when used in the criminal context, generally means deliberate conduct done with a bad purpose either to disobey or to disregard the law. See Black's Law Dictionary (5th ed. 1979). That kind of conduct is not present here.

  Although the Second Circuit, in a criminal contempt case involving a defendant who refused to testify as a trial witness after he had been immunized and directed to answer questions, rejected the argument that good faith reliance on advice of counsel negates willfulness, see United States v. Remini, 967 F.2d 754, 757 (2d Cir. 1992), the Court is aware of no criminal contempt case where a court has rejected a sincere religious belief as a defense to a criminal contempt charge. But see Smilow v. United States, 465 F.2d 802, 804 (2d Cir.), vacated, 409 U.S. 944 (1972) (affirming judgment which rejected religious defense claim in context of civil contempt proceeding, which does not require willfulness); see also State of New Jersey v. Chesimard, 555 F.2d 63 (3d Cir. 1977) (en banc) (Gibbons, Maris and Van Dusen, Judges, dissenting) (disagreeing with majority's decision not to reach merits of defendant's request that trial not be held on Fridays, a holy day, and finding that government objective, even of the highest order, will not justify the imposition of restraint upon free exercise of religion unless that objective cannot otherwise be achieved); United States v. Fisher, 571 F. Supp. 1236 (S.D.N.Y. 1983) (rejecting co-defendant's First Amendment interest in not having to attend trial on Fridays, a holy day, due to extraordinary circumstances of eight defendant trial of expected lengthy duration).

 However, even assuming arguendo that the Court were satisfied that the Government's proof established the requisite willfulness, the Court would still find the defendants not guilty. The facts presented here both by sworn testimony and a videotape depicting an elderly bishop and a young monk quietly praying with rosary beads in the Clinic's driveway, clearly call for what Judge Friendly once referred to, in United States v. Barash, 365 F.2d 395, 403 (2d Cir. 1966), as that exercise of the prerogative of leniency which a fact-finder has to refuse to convict a defendant, even if the circumstances would otherwise be sufficient to convict. But cf. Sparf and Hansen v. United States, 156 U.S. 51, 39 L. Ed. 343, 15 S. Ct. 273 (1895) (outlawing practice of permitting counsel to argue to jury that it could return a verdict contrary to law). *fn4"

 The Court has been cited to no authority by the parties that the Court, when it sits as a fact-finder, does not have that same prerogative of leniency and the Court's own research has disclosed none. Indeed, the policies which underlie that prerogative are even stronger in cases of criminal contempt because the Court, which has issued the Order, must and should have the broadest possible discretion to determine whether the conduct at issue is such that a finding of criminal contempt is necessary to vindicate its authority.

 CONCLUSION

 The Court finds both Lynch and Moscinski to be not guilty of criminal contempt. Not only does their sincere religious belief render their conduct lacking in the willfulness which criminal contempt requires, but also, the nature of that conduct, which is purely passive as the videotape shows, and which is at the outermost limits of expressive conduct that is not constitutionally protected, is so minimally obstructive as to justify the exercise of the prerogative of leniency. The charge is therefore dismissed.

 It is SO ORDERED.

 DATED: New York, New York

 January 10, 1997

 John E. Sprizzo

 United States District Judge


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