“Man Sentenced to Jail After Mocking Disabled Girl”

So reads the headline to an ABC News story, and the first sentence reinforces this: “An Ohio man faces one month of jail time for teasing and taunting a 10-year-old girl with cerebral palsy after a video of the incident went viral.”

But the sentence stems from two incidents, as paragraphs buried deeper in the story reveal:

  1. The teasing at a school bus stop, which is said to be “disorderly conduct, a misdemeanor of the fourth degree. A disorderly conduct is a minor misdemeanor and carries no jail time.”
  2. Menacing, a more serious charge that stemmed from a different incident: defendant’s “… swinging a tow chain on his porch, saying he was going to choke [the child’s mother] until [she] stopped twitching.”

Now it might be that the judge gave a higher sentence on the menacing charge because of the bad behavior towards the daughter:

Although Bailey’s sentencing technically reflects the charges brought by his actions toward Knight, Hope’s mother, [prosecutor Jennifer] Fitzsimmons explains how the plea deal enabled the sentence to cover his actions toward Hope.

“Because the menacing misdemeanor charge was directed toward Hope’s mother, and they’re all interrelated, the judge took into account all the actions of Mr. Bailey and the entire Holcomb family,” said Fitzsimmons.

Bailey “entered a plea of ‘no contest’ to a menacing charge and to disorderly conduct,” said Fitzsimmons.

But it’s hard to tell: A 30-day sentence just for threatening to choke someone to death would be perfectly plausible even in the absence of cruelty to the target’s child.

Yet there’s one more twist, stemming from still more poor reporting: Under Ohio law, a misdemeanor of the fourth degree is not the same as a “minor misdemeanor“; the former can lead to a sentence of up to 30 days, while the latter cannot. And while disorderly conduct is usually a minor misdemeanor, it is a misdemeanor of the fourth degree if committed in a school safety zone, and it’s possible though not certain that a bus stop might qualify (as involving the “school activity” in the form of the children returning from school on the bus). So it’s possible, though I think unlikely, that the defendant would have been sentenced to 30 days just for the taunting alone; but in any event, the sentence covered both the taunting charge and the menacing charge, and the menacing charge seems the more clearly serious one.

In any event, this story is a reminder to be careful when reading news stories about legal issues — or about any issues, for that matter. What’s in the headline and the first paragraph may not reflect what’s in the rest of the article, sometimes inevitably (one paragraph can never fully capture a whole story) but sometimes because of sloppiness or sensationalism. And sometimes the body of the article can be quite imprecise or even inaccurate.

For those interested in the First Amendment questions: menacing, even when done through speech, is constitutionally punishable because of the “true threats” exception; face-to-face personal insults are generally constitutionally punishable because of the “fighting words” exception. (True, it’s probably not likely that the 10-year-old would respond to the insults by fighting, but the family member accompanying her might.)

Thanks to Lincoln Ellis for the pointer.