By Pat Cooper
It took a jury roughly 15 minutes to convict a man on an obstruction charge in Fayette County State Court on Wednesday in a trial where the rights of sovereign immunity and charges of profiling were presented.
The Feb. 2 incident between barber Jerry Butler and a Fayette County Sheriff’s Deputy became the subject of two court proceedings, after Butler was found not guilty of two of the three charges leveled against him.
Before the trial even started there was controversy in the court that state court judge Jason Thompson sorted out.
In representing himself- pro se-, Butler asked for a court reporter to be provided for him, for which Butler was expected to pay.
According to Thompson, since Butler hadn’t paid the original cost and was again requesting a court reporter, he was required to not only catch up on the old payment but to also pre-pay the reporter based on her estimate of the day’s activities.
Assistant Solicitor-General Joseph B. Myers, Jr. said he wanted Butler charged with contempt of court for failing to follow the court’s initial instructions about payment to the reporter, but Thompson felt that as long as the past invoice was paid and the defendant pre-paid the reporter each day, there wasn’t need of the contempt charge.
In his opening argument Myers said that if, when Butler was pulled over, he had just responded to the questions being asked him, Butler could have gone home that night.
At around 10 p.m. FCSO deputy Lt. Hullett testified he spotted Butler’s Ford Mustang stopped in front of the Huckabee’s Chevron when he was doing rounds off Highway 92, near Westbridge Road, checking on the local gas stations/convenience stores in the area since there had been several robberies in the past.
Hullett said he saw Butler’s car pull up to the pump at the Chevron station, stop, then drive across the street to the Shell station. Again, the car pulled up in front of the pump, stopped, then pulled out. By that time, Hullett was trying to pull into the station for his check there and, testifying in court, said that Butler nearly hit his vehicle head on, before he swung around and turned onto Highway 92, heading towards the Fulton County line.
Hullett said he turned around, then crossed over the highway to follow Butler, concerned he could be an impaired driver. Hullett followed Butler, with two cars in between, flipped on his blue lights, passed the two other cars, dropped in behind Butler and attempted to get him to stop. Butler continued for nearly another quarter of a mile. Hullett flipped on his siren and, finally, Butler slowed and pulled over.
Hullett then testified he unsnapped his gun and held it down by his side, until he could ascertain what was going on. He said that when he approached the car and looked in, Butler had his cell phone in his hands and was scrolling to find something, announcing that he was a ‘sovereign citizen’ and therefore not subject to the county’s laws. Hullett put his gone away without showing it to Butler.
Self-described sovereign citizens take the position that they are answerable only to common law and are not subject to any statutes or proceedings at the federal, state or municipal levels, or that they do not recognize U.S. currency and that they are "free of any legal constraints". The United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) classifies "sovereign citizens" among domestic terror threats as anti-government extremists.
Butler contended that, in fact, he was standing up for himself, pointing out that he was on a dark road late at night when he was pulled over. He was, he said, “tired from working all day, trying to get home for his daughter’s birthday and to also take care of his wife who had suffered a miscarriage.”
After some back and forth between the two, Hullett testified that Butler resisted his attempts to make sure he stayed on the scene by taking the car keys but when the defendant refused, he handcuffed his one hand to the steering wheel. Hullett then called in for back up.
Sheriff Barry Babb, in his own vehicle and plain clothes responded to the call, as did officers from Fayetteville, other deputies and members of the Fulton County police department.
Babb testified that when he came on scene he came up to the driver’s passenger door asking for a spare set of cuffs. Another deputy arrived on scene with handcuffs and Babb turned the situation over to him.
“I told him to quit resisting. He appeared very agitated,” said Babb. However, he became concerned when he saw Butler’s free hand drop between his legs onto the seat and he ‘grabbed his hand.’
Babb said training had him considering whether or not Butler was going for a gun, so he grabbed Butler’s hand. Butler, however, was only holding his cell phone and attempting to record the proceedings.
Detective Robert Kersey also testified to the incident, his testimony backing up Hullett and Babb.
During his own closing arguments, Butler accused the sheriff’s office of profiling and not having probable cause to pull him over to begin with.
“I was trying to exercise my rights,” said Butler.
Throughout the two-day hearing, Butler frequently asked for the charges to be dropped, but was turned down. He said he had done nothing wrong and that there was no problem until the deputy created the problem.
The jury deliberated for about 15 minutes before coming back with a unanimous guilty verdict. Thompson sentenced Butler to nine months to serve.