Kevin Wilson: PNT managing editor
The American Civil Liberties Union has given assistance to a Portales man who says he was arrested for practicing religion in the city.
Shawn Miller, 33, was released from the Roosevelt County Detention Center on Wednesday after more than three months in custody. He posted a $3,000 appearance bond.
In a press release from the ACLU, Miller said, “I was preaching the word of God and not hurting anybody.”
Attempts to reach Miller and family members Thursday for further comment were unsuccessful.
Peter Simonson, executive director of the state’s ACLU office, said the organization is helping Miller on the basis of his right to free speech.
“He’s got a free speech right to proclaim his faith in God,” Simonson said. “Being charged with disorderly conduct was an unfair way of muzzling him when he was doing nothing wrong.”
Miller was arrested April 17 while conducting a religious service. The group’s congregation on that day carried folding chairs, a CD player and Bibles to a lot on Second Sreet and South Avenue C, commonly used by street vendors.
The police acknowledged that Miller had the right to deliver his message, but said he was arrested because he was creating a diversion to passing traffic and refused to listen to an officer trying to correct his actions.
“You could be shouting the First Amendment,” Portales Police Capt. Lonnie Berry said, “but you can’t do it standing in the median. That was (what was) called in.”
According to the incident report, responding officer Charles Smart was dispatched on April 17, a Sunday, at 11:05 a.m. in reference to a subject yelling at passing vehicles.
Smart approached Miller, who repeatedly told Smart he didn’t have to listen to him because he was preaching the word of God and wasn’t doing anything wrong, according to the report.
At one point, the report said, Miller walked away from Smart and returned to the curb and “continued yelling out at vehicles.
Smart advised Miller once again to stop, at which point Miller dropped to his knees and began waving his arms above his head, according to the report.
After that, Miller was placed under arrest and booked at the Roosevelt County Detention Center for disoderly conduct and resisting arrest. Miller was held on no bond, but the district court changed the bond to $3,000 on May 18, an official at the RCDC said.
Berry said Miller’s shouting was viewed by the responding officer as a distraction to motorists, but said the situation could have ended without incident had Miller cooperated.
About a month later Miller’s wife, Theresa, sent an e-mail to the state’s ACLU office. Simonson said his office watched the case from that point, but acted in the last few weeks because it wasn’t satisfied with the work of Miller’s court-appointed lawyer.
The ACLU views Miller’s actions as his free speech, and regarded them as an annoyance to passing motorists, not a distraction.
“Annoying speech, and even offensive speech, is protected under the First Amendment,” Simonson said. “What’s offensive to one person in this instance is for another person the word of God. The Constitution protects both sides of the equation.
“If people don’t want to hear what he has to say, then don’t listen, don’t stand next to him.”