Jonas Phillips, the West Asheville man arrested for holding an “Impeach Bush/Cheney” sign over the Haywood Road/Interstate 240 overpass in August—a form of protest known as highway blogging—was found not guilty March 6 on charges of obstructing the sidewalk and endangering motorists.
District Court Judge James Calvin Hill said the prosecution had insufficient evidence to prove its case, as none of the arresting officers had observed any pedestrians being blocked by Phillips’ actions. Hill rejected the argument that motorists honking their horns in response to the sign proved that it was a dangerous distraction.
“I’ve been listening to both sides for clear signs that his actions were causing a significant problem for pedestrians and motorists,” said Hill. “Based on what I’ve heard, I can’t find that they did.”
Phillips’ attorney, William Auman, argued that his client was simply exercising his right to free speech and was targeted because of the content of his sign. Plenty of other legal activities, argued Auman, are just as distracting to motorists.
“His activities were no more distracting than cell phones or billboards,” he said. The prosecution, noted Auman, “didn’t even bring the sign to court, which could have given us a better idea of the situation. Their evidence clearly falls short.”
In her closing argument, Assistant District Attorney Meredith Pressley countered: “The problem was not at all with his content but his method of delivering it. [Phillips] said that he chose this method because it gets a lot of attention, which distracted drivers from what should have been their primary duty of operating their vehicles. We’re not saying Mr. Phillips is a bad person—the officers said he was polite—but he did obstruct the sidewalk and endanger drivers at a busy time.”
Portions of Phillips’ account differed from those presented by the two Asheville police officers who arrested him, Sgt. Randall Riddle and Officer Russell Crisp.
Phillips, for example, asserted that Riddle had been belligerent when he was arrested, saying, “I’m sick of this s**t” and “Here’s your 15 minutes of fame, buddy.” In his testimony, Riddle said he didn’t recall if he had or hadn’t made such statements.
Phillips also said that Crisp had questioned him in the squad car, asking him if he was affiliated with other protest groups, such as Veterans for Peace. Crisp flatly denied that he had asked any such questions.
Crisp, meanwhile, said he’d seen Phillips “dash across the street,” but Phillips said he’d done so at a time when there was no traffic on the bridge.
Donations, many from local activists, covered Phillips’ $750 in legal fees. Several supporters sat in the courtroom, holding miniature American flags that they planned to cover their mouths with if Phillips was found guilty. Instead, they waved the flags in celebration after Hill announced his verdict.
Outside the courtroom afterward, Phillips stood with his wife, Kendra Phillips, and their 7-year-old daughter, Oona.
“I’m very, very happy. This has been hanging over us for seven months,” he told Xpress.
Phillips added that he intends to resume highway blogging in the future.