By Kay Hoffer
A District Court bench trial held last week at the Prairie County Courthouse found a Terry man not guilty of disorderly conduct, subsequently overturning a lower court ruling.
The December 5 decision made by Judge Richard Simonton, overturned an earlier verdict of guilt handed down by Justice of the Peace Kathy Henry during a September 10 non-jury trial, in which defendant Bob van der valk was found guilty of the charge.
van der Valk then appealed the Justice of the Peace ruling, which led to the December 5 District Court bench trial.
“I find the defendant not guilty,” concluded Judge Simonton. “But I find his behavior obnoxious … but that’s not a crime.”
In a decision that chastised both van der Valk for not controlling himself better and board members for not understanding the proper procedural steps to identifying and removing those disrupting public meetings, Simonton clarified there is a balance to ensuring free speech is protected while orderly conduct is maintained at public meetings.
Pointing to the fact that in this case the defendant had already left the meeting of his own accord and the meeting carried on with regular business, it was clear the bar for the disorderly conduct charge had not been met.
The nearly three-hour-long hearing included the testimony of seven witnesses and the viewing of a video clip taken from Undersheriff Greg Huber’s patrol vehicle dashboard camera.
The disorderly conduct charge stemmed from a May 23 Zoning Commission meeting held earlier this year, in which van der Valk spoke at and was later arrested by Huber outside Terry Town Hall. Testimony given at the trial described an agitated van der Valk raising his voice, pointing his finger at zoning commission board members and calling them “rabbit killers” during the public comment portion of the meeting, before “turning around and stomping out” of the town hall building.
Huber testified that he was asked to attend the May 23 zoning meeting by Mayor Ron Kiosse, due to concerns raised at previous meetings.
Testimony given by Huber and others described van der Valk being warned by the undersheriff either once or twice to quiet down. Although no warning was given to van der Valk to quiet down by the three zoning board members during the May 23 meeting, zoning board members Ruth Lekse and Eldon Netzer each described van der Valk speaking in a loud voice and refusing to let the board members respond to his comments by over-talking them. van der Valk spoke between five to 15 minutes at the May 23 meeting, according to testimony given.
During cross examination each of the state’s four witnesses testified that van der Valk did not verbally threaten anyone, throw anything, nor rattle windows or the door when exiting the building. Testimony given also described the meeting as continuing without disruption after van der Valk’s departure, with witnesses testifying that they believed many attending the meeting were unaware that van der Valk was being arrested outside the building.
The patrol vehicle dashboard camera recorded the verbal exchange between van der Valk and Huber outside Terry Town Hall after Huber followed van der Valk out of the building.
“One more outburst and you’re going to jail,” Huber is heard telling van der Valk on the recording.
“You can put me in jail if you want to,” van der Valk is heard responding, before being handcuffed by Huber.
The defense questioned Huber’s motives for attending the May 23 meeting, asking Huber if he went to the meeting intending to arrest van der Valk. Huber said he did not.
Jim Ross testified that in a conversation he had with Huber prior to the May 23 meeting, Huber had told him that he was going to start attending the meetings and that he would arrest anyone being disruptive, noting that Huber felt others in the sheriff’s office lacked the courage to do so.
“I turned around and left,” Ross testified as to his response to Huber’s comments. “I didn’t feel it was appropriate.”
During his ruling, Simonton disregarded conspiracy claims made by the defense.
“I don’t believe the defendant was setup in this case,” Simonton said.
Conciliatory remarks were shared following the ruling.
“I think that’s a good result,” Prairie County Attorney Garry Bunke said of the judge’s ruling, acknowledging that he had gone back and forth on whether to take the case to District Court. “I think he (Judge Simonton) called it right, based on the evidence,” Bunke said.
Published December 11, 2013