We’ve been hesitant to get into the strange criminal case of Christopher Pentico just because there’s always the possibility in cases like this that some other as-yet-unreported fact could change its coloration significantly. If there is such, please let us know; but most of the gray areas do seem filled in by way of today’s Wayne Hoffman column in the Idaho Statesman.
Pentico, a Republican precinct committeeman, has had an interest in funding of student clubs at Boise State University with student fees (his concern evidently having to do with disparities in funding for religious clubs). He appears to have questioned whether the state level would be looking impartially at the question because of marriage ties between an Board of Education attorney and a dean at BSU. Pursuing his point further, he stopped by the legislature, and later (on something like five or six occasions) by the office of the governor.
Of concern here is not the merits of his concern, but what happened to him when he tried bringing his concerns to state officials. After his visit to the interim legislative offices in March 2008, a state trooper approached him and told him he had made some legislators “uncomfortable” and to stay away from the building. Then, Hoffman writes, “On March 25, 2008, two Capitol security officers blocked Pentico’s entry to the Legislative Annex and told Pentico not to enter the annex, the third and fourth floors of the Borah Post Office (the temporary home of the governor’s suite of offices), and the state Department of Education.” These are, of course, all public buildings – the public ordinarily has free access to them. Pentico had been accused of no crime or other wrongdoing (other than, apparently, making some legislators “uncomfortable”). There is some dispute about whether he was told by the officer he was formally banned from these areas (apparently by order of the state police), or whether he was simply unwelcome; nothing on the subject was preserved on paper from that time.
The non-legislative offices seem to have been added to the off-limits list because Pentico had been persistently visiting them. Hoffman quotes Otter staffer Clete Edmunson as saying, “He just kept coming back to us.” Asked if he was belligerent, Edmunson said, “I wouldn’t say belligerent. Obstinate might be the right word for it.”
He has not, evidently, threatened or harmed anyone.
On April 2, 2008, Pentico swung by the governor’s office to drop off a written complaint about how state troopers had told him not to venture into the forbidden public buildings. On the way out of the building – the visit was without incident – he was arrested by state police for trespassing. Last month he was convicted of the charge; this week he is to be sentenced.
To be clear: A person presenting a danger, or even threatening behavior, can reasonably be blocked from places where people might be at risk, as happens often with restraining orders. But that seems not to be the case here: Instead, this was a case of people working in government offices who had gotten tired and disgusted with dealing with a constituent, who seems to have become to them a nuisance. The power of the state was then unleashed on the nuisance . . . (Hoffman: “a very small number of government employees proclaimed three public buildings off-limits and then compelled Pentico to obey – not because they were afraid of him, but because they were tired of dealing with him. They alone determined the point at which a diligent constituent became an obstinate one. And they alone determined that Pentico’s obstinance had crossed an imaginary line requiring their action.”)
But what difference is there, really, between what Pentico was doing and what any citizen petitioning the government – for that matter, any normally aggressive lobbyist – might do? Pentico may have been an intense personality (to judge by the descriptions), but so what? At what point does redress or grievances and petitioning one’s government turn into a case of trespassing, of arrest and conviction?
Until we see that bright line, we’re all at risk if we choose to approach our governing officials with whatever’s on our minds. Unless there’s more to the story, Pentico’s case sounds like scary precedent for anyone interested in open government or the simple freedom to speak one’s mind.Share on Facebook