45-Year Old Mother and Community Leader Arrested for Exercising Her First Amendment Rights
Early January of 2008, Montana community leader Tammy Hoth turned herself in in response to a warrant for her arrest issued by the Billings, MT police department. Ms. Hoth was handcuffed, searched, had her fingerprints and mug shot taken, and was released on a bond posted at nearly $600. If convicted, she faced a maximum penalty of $500, and six months in jail.
Her imprisonable crime? Passing out leaflets in Casa Village Manufactured Home Community. The leaflets advertised a meeting where residents could learn about their legal rights and strategize how to improve their community. Officially, Ms. Hoth’s “crime,” pressed by Casa Village manager Susie Cole, was Criminal Trespass to Property (Section 45-6-203(1)(b), Montana Code Annotated).
Ms. Hoth is a 45 year old single mother who has been working with her neighbors in Red Lodge, Montana to purchase her own park and to form the state's first manufactured housing cooperative. Additionally, Tammy has been volunteering her time to help other manufactured home park residents become aware of their rights, and of opportunities to own not only their homes, but the land as well. She has led workshops to educate over 175 residents of manufactured home parks. Recently, her own park, Mountain Springs Villa, received a grant nearing half a million dollars to renovate and move their newly formed cooperative.
Ms. Hoth was targeted by park owners and the City for simply passing out information – an act clearly protected by her First Amendment rights. The unfortunate message from the City of Billings is clear – if you live in a manufactured home park, it is a crime for anyone to inform you of your rights, or contact you in person for any reason.
If the statute is read literally, it gives park owners absolute control over the type of information residents have access to and who may or may not enter. Under this argument, if a park owner didn't like your grandmother she or he could put your grandmother in jail for visiting you.
There is, in fact, case law (see Folgueras v. Hassle, Marsh v. Alabama) related to this issue. As an example, Folgueras v Hassle (related to migrant workers living as tenants on the owner's land) concluded:
"The fundamental underlying principle is simply that…real property ownership does not vest the owner with dominion over the lives of those people living on his property. They are…citizens of the United States and tenants. As such they are entitled to the kinds of communications, associations, and friendships guaranteed to all citizens, and secured by the Constitution. The owner's property rights do not divest the migrants of these rights."
Determined to stand up for herself and the rights of all residents, Ms. Hoth pled not guilty and requested a public defender and a jury trial. During the following five months, Ms. Hoth used her vacation time and paid out of pocket for gas to go to a variety of hearings and calendar calls at the Billings court house, an hour and a half drive from her home in Red Lodge, MT.
APAC assisted Ms. Hoth in generating statewide press coverage; a national call-in campaign to the city attorney and mayor of Billings that generated dozens of calls and emails from organizations and residents alike; and nearly 200 post cards to the city attorney and mayor. APAC also assisted Ms. Hoth in finding many local allies, including Montana People’s Action, neighborhood organizations, other manufactured home communities, church members, and current and former state congresspeople.
On Friday, May 2nd, Ms. Hoth called the APAC office with the good news that Susie Cole had agreed to drop the charges against her, if Ms. Hoth signed paperwork agreeing not to enter Casa Village for a period of one year. Ms. Hoth agreed to this condition, knowing that as she was still able to meet with Casa Village residents outside of the park it would not impede her continued commitment to inform and organize interested Casa Village residents.
Although Ms. Hoth is no longer in danger of imprisonment, the danger still exists for any persons trying to inform and organize residents in any capacity; be this a get out the vote drive or a resident meeting. Montana, like many states, and unlike Minnesota (see MN Statute 327C.13), does not have a statewide freedom of expression law. North Dakota does not have this protection either, an important freedom to note as we are starting a three year organizing project in the state. Without the ability to inform and organize, concerned persons, including APAC staff and leaders, are risking arrest every time they step into a park in one of these states. Furthermore, if residents in states with few protections are to have a real shot at gaining rights such as relocation compensation, right of first refusal, and protection from retaliation; it is clear that first step will have to be to gain freedom of expression. There are lots of Susie Coles out there.