Flaming Words Or Just Free Speech?
As the court case moves ahead for a man charged with inciting a riot, a plea deal could reduce the charge.
Leanora Minai, St. Petersburg Times Online, Jun. 14
ST. PETERSBURG — The bar at BayWalk was packed with patrons dancing and slurping frozen daiquiris.
Suddenly, a man in a crowd of 200 at Wet Willie’s began cursing at police. After a confrontation, he was wrestled to the ground.
Keith Stewart, Uhuru member and cornerman for boxing champ Ronald “Winky” Wright, watched the arrest with friends.
“We’re going to beat some cop a — tonight,” Stewart shouted, according to court documents. “We’re going to burn the city down.”
The crowd grew hostile on that October night, police say. In the few minutes that followed, Stewart was arrested and charged with inciting a riot, a rarely used felony statute.
Was Stewart exercising his right to free speech, or had he crossed a line into endangering police and patrons?
It is a case that could inflame tensions between police and black activists, particularly members of the Uhuru Movement who have picketed weekly at BayWalk. A jury is scheduled to hear arguments Wednesday, but talks are under way to reduce the charges. Those negotiations anger some officers.
“This is the type of thing that infuriates the common citizen, as well as law enforcement officers,” said Sgt. Phil Quandt, a Fraternal Order of Police representative. “You go out there and you put yourself at risk, and then there’s a deal.”
Police Chief Chuck Harmon said he briefly discussed the Stewart case last week with State Attorney Bernie McCabe but did not request to settle it.
“I didn’t influence this case one way or the other,” Harmon said. “I tried hard to stay out of it. Pleas are taken in about 90 percent of the cases, so it wouldn’t be uncommon.”
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It was about 11:30 p.m. on Oct. 3. Terry Roquemore was drinking at Wet Willie’s.
Roquemore, 28, was standing near the bar with a group of friends when, police say, he started cursing at officers.
Officer Jason Landrem said in a report that he approached Roquemore and asked him to stop.
But Roquemore cursed in Landrem’s face, police reports say. Landrem and another officer were escorting Roquemore out of the bar when he resisted and pulled away.
Landrem took Roquemore to the ground to contain the situation, but he still resisted, police say.
“After several failed attempts to pull his right hand behind his back, I delivered a strike to his right shoulder area . . . to gain compliance, but it was not effective,” Landrem said in his report.
Stewart, 34, who knew Roquemore from the neighborhood, interfered with the arrest, police say.
Officer Barry Books said in court documents that Stewart, who was with eight to 10 friends, incited the crowd of 200 by punching his palm with his fist and shouting, “We’re going to burn the city down like we did in '96!” Two nights of civil unrest followed a fatal police shooting of a motorist in 1996.
Books said Stewart made a call on his cell phone during the ruckus on the second floor of BayWalk.
“He started talking about, “Bring some more people down here. The cops are doing something down here,’” Books said in a court deposition. “So basically he was calling for reinforcements on the phone. There was talk about throwing us over the railing.”
Stewart continued firing up the crowd, which was growing and moving closer to officers gathered on and near the narrow walkway between Dan Marino’s and Wet Willie’s, police say.
Books told Stewart to stop and leave the property, court documents say, but Stewart teamed up with another man and cursed at officers.
Books said he arrested Stewart “to preserve the safety” of officers and patrons.
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Stewart has said he was exercising his right to free speech.
But Florida law does not protect speech or conduct that advocates violence and creates a clear and present danger.
“Your right to free speech does not extend to your right to shout fire in a crowded theater,” said Bruce Howie, an attorney and chair of the legal panel for the Pinellas County chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
If the Stewart case goes to trial, prosecutor Bill Burgess and defense attorney Maura Kiefer likely will focus on exactly what Stewart said that night and whether witnesses can back it up.
“A lot of the defense is going to depend upon the interpretation of his words,” Howie said. “I have a feeling you’re going to get two entirely different versions of what was said.”
Howie said that it is rare to see someone charged with inciting a riot, a third-degree felony. Usually, people in Stewart’s situation are charged with obstruction.
But that night, officers feared for their safety, as well as patrons’ security, and wanted to quell a potential disturbance, prosecutors say.
Stewart’s attorney said police overreacted.
“Things got out of hand . . . I think there’s a heightened sensitivity in law enforcement because of the unexpected 1996 riot,” Kiefer said after an April hearing. Kiefer did not return calls for comment last week as she negotiated a potential plea agreement with prosecutors.
Stewart also declined comment.
His face is on Uhuru fliers, distributed weekly at BayWalk.
“Keith Stewart is a father, popular community activist,” says a flier titled “Hands Off Keith Mtundu Stewart.”
Stewart counts himself among boxer Winky Wright’s best friends. Stewart said he was in Wright’s corner in Las Vegas in March when Wright won the title as world junior middleweight champion.
But Stewart is also no stranger to police. In 1993, he pleaded no contest to resisting arrest and disorderly conduct. In 1998, a jury found him guilty of misdemeanor battery and obstructing an officer without violence. The circumstances in both cases were similar to the BayWalk incident in that Stewart interfered with arrests, prosecutors say.
Some police say Harmon and other city officials want Stewart’s latest criminal charge settled to defuse community tensions.
Harmon said he called McCabe, the state attorney, about a different case on Thursday and the Stewart matter came up.
“He did mention to me the fact that there had been some discussions in the Stewart case,” Harmon said. “I told him to keep me in the loop. He told me something might be in the works. I asked him to keep me informed.”
McCabe confirmed the conversation but said Harmon did not ask for a reduction in the charge.
“I’m always open to resolution of cases,” McCabe said.
“Usually, it’s in the best interest of both sides to settle the case and avoid court time and cost,” Harmon said.
A deal may involve Stewart pleading guilty to obstructing an officer, a first-degree misdemeanor.
Instead of facing up to five years in prison if convicted, Stewart would get six months of probation.
A hearing is scheduled today.