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People v. Taylor

June 30, 2004


[6] Appeal from the Circuit Court of Lake County. No. 02-CM-3755. Honorable Joseph R. Waldeck, Judge, Presiding.

[7] The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Byrne

[8]  Defendant, Tara L. Taylor, appeals her conviction of harassment by telephone under section 1--1(2) of the Harassing and Obscene Communications Act (Act) (720 ILCS 135/1--1(2) (West 2002)), contending that the evidence was insufficient to allow the court to find that she had the requisite intent to harass. Because we do not think that one can infer such intent from the use of a few vulgarities, we agree, and we reverse her conviction.

[9]  Defendant was charged by information with one count of harassment by telephone (making a telephone call with intent to harass) and was given a bench trial. GreDel Brown testified that on May 30, 2002, she found a single message on her answering machine, which she recalled as, "Are you and your friends that effing ghetto that you have to go to the web site and talk shit about a baby that's an innocent baby that just came into the world?" Her seven-year-old daughter was with her when she played the message, and she felt harassed by the message. She used "Star 69" to identify the source of the message and called the Gurnee police to report telephone harassment. Officer Frank V. Tuggle came to Brown's house to investigate the complaint. He made a tape of the message, which the State played for the court:

[10]   "I was just wondering if you and your friends are that [inaudible, one word] ghetto and low class that you have to go onto a web site uh talking shit on-line about a child that just came into this world just because you're jealous that it's not yours. [Inaudible, several words] grow up and learn how to spell."

[11]   The quality of the recording is generally poor and background noises nearly drown out the speech at some points. At the point transcribed as "inaudible, one word," a spike of background noise occurs. At that point, the speaker uses a word which one could reasonably understand as either "effing" or "fucking."

[12]   Officer Tuggle testified that he called defendant to question her about the message, and defendant admitted that she was the one who left it. He called her again later that day to tell her that the complaining witness was going to press charges against her. Early in the morning of May 31, defendant went to the police station. She asked Officer Tuggle what the nature of the charge was, and after he explained, she said that leaving the message was wrong and she should not have done it. She made a written statement, which the court admitted:

[13]   "I, Tara Taylor am stating that I called Del Brown's house on 5/31/02 [sic] leaving a message that was my opinion. I was upset that there were nasty comments (that I believe she wrote) on the Lake Forest Hospital[']s web nursery about a child that was born. This child is fathered by her boyfriend Bryant Jones. She calls and harasses me and my best friend Jessica Ruple (the baby's Mother). We are both in the process of getting charges filed against Del Brown."

[14]   Defendant testified that she did make the call. She thought her use of such language was wrong, but she used it because she was angry. Under cross-examination, she admitted that she had used the word "fucking" in the message. She called Brown because she was upset about a series of approximately 35 messages posted on an Internet bulletin board or guest book regarding her god-daughter, Teagan. Teagan was the daughter of Jessica Ruple, who had been defendant's friend for seven years. Moreover, defendant had been with Jessica when she gave birth and had baby-sat Teagan from her birth until sometime after May 2002. Teagan's father was Bryant Jones, but Jones was in a relationship with Brown. Teagan was born at Lake Forest Hospital, which maintains a website that displays photographs of babies born at the hospital next to the first names of the parents and the infants' dates of birth. The site allows visitors to post messages. Defendant had visited the site and seen a series of messages disparaging Jessica and Teagan--saying, for instance, that Teagan was ugly, fat, and had a big head. Some of the messages were signed "Del," the name by which defendant knew Brown. Defendant believed that Brown had left the messages, and defendant had called Brown to express her opinion of Brown's actions.

[15]   The court found defendant guilty:

[16]   "[I]f she had merely called to ask why it was needed to put those negative comments on the web site, that would not have been harassment by telephone pursuant to the statute. But *** by her very own statements she says that the language was wrong and within the purview of the statute of harassment by telephone."

[17]   Defendant filed a posttrial motion, arguing that the evidence was insufficient to establish defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The court denied the motion, and defendant timely appeals.

[18]   Defendant argues that the State had no evidence that defendant intended to harass Brown. We agree. A trier of fact cannot infer an intent to harass in the required sense solely from the use of some vulgar language in a telephone call that otherwise had a legitimate purpose. Defendant also contends that the proof that Brown felt harassed was insufficient. Because we resolve this matter in defendant's favor based on her first claim, we need not consider the second contention.

[19]   The State charged defendant under section 1--1(2) of the Act, which prohibits "[m]aking a telephone call, whether or not conversation ensues, with intent to abuse, threaten or harass any person at the called number." 720 ILCS 135/1--1(2) (West 2002). Specifically, it charged her with calling with intent to harass. Before we can consider whether the State presented satisfactory evidence that defendant called Brown with intent to harass, we need to consider what "to harass" means in this context. We review the interpretation of a statute de novo. People v. Donoho, 204 Ill. 2d 159, 172 (2003).

[20]   In People v. Spencer, 314 Ill. App. 3d 206, 208 (2000), a previous case considering section 1--1(2), we adopted the definition of "harassment" from the Illinois Domestic Violence Act of 1986 (Domestic Violence Act) (750 ILCS 60/101 et seq. (West 2002)): "knowing conduct which is not necessary to accomplish a purpose that is reasonable under the circumstances; would cause a reasonable person emotional distress; and does cause emotional distress to the petitioner" (750 ILCS 60/103(7) (West 2002)). In People v. Zarebski, 186 Ill. App. 3d 285, 294 (1989), we found that the word "harassment" in the Domestic Violence Act implies "intentional acts which cause someone to be worried, anxious, or uncomfortable." However, as the present context shows, considerations of constitutionality ...

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