Not-so-killer art

The California appellate court rules former Pleasant Valley High student’s painting does not constitute a terrorist threat

CHICO SKYLINE? <br>This painting by a former Pleasant Valley High School student led to a felony terrorist threat conviction that was overturned by an appellate court last week.

This painting by a former Pleasant Valley High School student led to a felony terrorist threat conviction that was overturned by an appellate court last week.

Photo by Tom Angel

What’s a threat? California law states specifically that a criminal threat must be conveyed verbally, in writing or by means of an electronic device, but it also interprets the word “writing” to include any physical rendering of a person’s thoughts, ideas or creations, including a painting.

By all accounts the painting by Pleasant Valley High School student Ryan D. (as he was identified in court papers) was in bad—even shockingly bad—taste, and its timing was poor. But did it rise to a felony terrorist threat, as a Butte County juvenile court judge ruled two years ago?

Not according to the California Third District Court of Appeals, which overturned the conviction last week.

In December 1999, Ryan was caught by school resources officer Lori McPhail off campus and carrying approximately an ounce of marijuana, which she discovered when she patted him down to give him a ride back to school in her cruiser.

As a result, Ryan received a five-day suspension, was enrolled into a drug diversion program and told to write a letter of apology to McPhail. A month later, the young artist turned in a painting for a school art project that depicted a young man in a green sweatshirt shooting a female police officer in the back of the head.

The school art teacher, according to court documents, called the painting “disturbing” and “scary” and turned it over to Vice Principal Pete Kroner, who called Ryan into his office for questioning.

Over the next two days Kroner and Vice Principal Mike Morris interviewed Ryan about his intentions. Then Chico Police Officer Dan Kelly questioned and arrested him when he agreed that it was possible that McPhail might eventually see the painting.

Neither a parent nor an attorney was present for the interviews.

Ryan was handcuffed, taken straight to the Butte County Juvenile Hall, made a ward of the court and remained in custody for the next five weeks. At his trial Butte County Juvenile Court Judge Ann Rutherford found him guilty of making a felony terrorist threat.

PV Principal Mike Rupp wrote the county Probation Office, saying Ryan would be a disruption should he return to the school. As a result, Ryan moved to the Bay Area to live with his father.

Ryan’s family hired Sonora attorney James Webster, who appealed the decision to the Third District Court of Appeals, a court local attorneys describe as conservative and usually not prone to overturning lower court rulings.

In this case, however, the court ruled the law does require that a threat be personally delivered to the victim. “In other words [the law] does not punish such things as mere angry utterances or ranting soliloquies, however violent,” the court said.

Presiding Justice Arthur Scotland opined that even though the painting “was intemperate and demonstrated extremely poor judgment, the evidence fails to establish that the minor intended to convey a threat to the officer.”

It went on to say that “a painting may make extensive use of symbolism, caricature, exaggeration, extravagance, fancy, and make-believe. A criminal threat, on the other hand, is a specific and narrow class of communication. It is the expression of an intent to inflict serious evil upon another person.”

Butte County District Attorney Michael Ramsey withheld his opinion on the court’s ruling but did say the painting was “very realistic.” He also defended the school’s right to question a student.

“Vice principals interview kids all the time without a parent or attorney,” he said. Legally, he explained, courts will examine if the minor has been “unduly coursed or unduly influenced,” but otherwise such interviews are legally sanctioned.

James Berglund, Ryan’s attorney during the Butte County trial, said that the ethics of the questioning are a “non-issue” and that his experience has shown that the police are oriented to get the information that they want.

“They can say just about anything they want to get the information they want,” Berglund said. “The courts look to see whether or not the tactic compelled an innocent person to confess.”

In trial, Berglund argued that the painting was a “kid’s caricature.” The appeals court decision would seem to agree, as it states in Scotland’s opinion: “The painting certainly reflects anger on [Ryan’s] part, but without more it does not appear to be anything other than a pictorial ranting.”

The court said the two days of interviewing by the school officials would suggest they did not perceive the painting to be an immediate threat.

Even the state’s attorney told the San Francisco Chronicle that court’s ruling did not surprise him.