AUGUSTA — An attorney for a Turner man, who in 2012 rammed his car into another and yelled homophobic slurs at the driver, argued before the state’s highest court Tuesday that an injunction imposed on his client last year should be narrowed or lifted entirely.
An Androscoggin County Superior Court justice imposed a permanent injunction on Ronald Champagne, 56, barring him from threatening to use physical force against Paul Groleau or any person by reason of that person’s race, color, religion, sex, ancestry, national origin, physical or mental disability or sexual orientation.
Champagne is also prohibited from damaging or trespassing on Groleau’s property, harassing, intimidating or speaking to him or coming within 150 feet of Groleau, his home or where he works.
If Champagne were to violate that order, he could be charged with a Class D crime, punishable by up to 364 days in jail and a maximum fine of $2,000.
The injunction stems from a case in which Champagne targeted Groleau on the night of March 22, 2012, at the causeway boat launch on Route 4 in Auburn.
The Maine Supreme Judicial Court listened to arguments by Lewiston attorney Donald Hornblower, who represented Champagne, and Assistant Attorney General Leanne Robbin, who represented the state of Maine.
Groleau, who was 61, had pulled his vehicle into the parking lot at about 11 p.m. after leaving his shift at his local job to adjust some items in the back of his vehicle, police said. Champagne drove up to Groleau’s vehicle in a Cadillac, rolled down his window, and yelled: “You’re a f—- fag and I’m gonna ram your ass right into the lake,” according to the injunction.
Champagne followed Groleau from the lot.
Groleau called 911 on his cellphone to report the incident. During the call, Champagne’s Cadillac rammed Groleau’s vehicle twice, causing Groleau to drop his phone on the second impact.
Then Champagne sped off.
Groleau, who was unhurt, pulled over at a car dealership and waited for police. He gave police the first four numbers of the Cadillac’s license plate.
Authorities later found Champagne and his Cadillac at his Turner home. Damage to the front end of the Cadillac was consistent with the reported ramming of Groleau’s vehicle, according to court papers.
Police who drove Champagne to Androscoggin County Jail in Auburn said he “spontaneously made several comments about the ‘queers’ and the Auburn Police Department’s problems with them on the causeway. He said he wasn’t about to bring ‘his girl’ to watch the sunset ‘because of all the queers,’ ” court documents showed.
In 2014, Champagne pleaded no contest to a felony charge of reckless conduct with a dangerous weapon and a misdemeanor charge of violating condition of release. He was sentenced to 18 months, with all of that time suspended except for two weeks in Androscoggin County Jail followed by one year of probation.
He was ordered to pay $1,000 in restitution to Groleau’s auto insurance company, plus $300 to Groleau. He also had been ordered to undergo a mental health evaluation and take all medications as prescribed during his probation.
Androscoggin County Superior Court Justice MaryGay Kennedy ruled last year that the state had proved with a preponderance of evidence that Champagne was motivated by his perception of Groleau’s sexual orientation. Her decision was based on Champagne’s threats to Groleau and on police reports that Champagne referred to the boat launch area as a “pickle park,” coupled with Champagne’s apparent discomfort with that area “because there was nothing but queers there,” according to remarks he made to another police officer.
Hornblower argued before the high court on Tuesday that Champagne was motivated that night by his religious beliefs and not by any bias against any particular sexual orientation. For that reason, his statements and actions are protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution and can’t form the underlying basis for an injunction.
Hornblower also argued that the prohibition imposed on Champagne was overly broad because it included other human characteristics in addition to sexual orientation.
Robbin said it’s not unreasonable for the court to include in its injunction order other characteristics against someone who acted in bias against someone based on one of the protected characteristics. The order is reasonable because it requires that Champagne comply with the civil rights law and not use violence or threats of violence against people based on their characteristics that are protected in Maine, she said.
Hornblower told the seven justices that Champagne is a “good man” who serves the young and old, male and female, able and disabled, black and white, foreign and native born as an automotive mechanic at a small garage in Turner.
Champagne committed an “inexcusable and life-changing series of mistakes during a time of religious fervor.” At the boat launch, there was “illegal, lewd behavior going on that was of concern to the law enforcement community.” Champagne had decided that one of the people there was “committing in public illicit acts that was an affront to children, family and to his religion.”
Hornblower called his client a “diminished citizen” due to the constraints put on him by the court’s order.
Justice Andrew Mead asked why someone who has exhibited a “predisposition, a proclivity, a willingness to really egregiously and violently attack a person because of perceived sexual orientation and that that willingness to commit such a violent act creates a circumstance where we need a broad order to say, ‘What if he does harbor a hostility based upon religion and he has an antisemitic predisposition we simply don’t know about, this is a dangerous man.’ Why not cast a wide net to catch all the possible things he may do in the future?”
Hornblower said he demonstrated during a hearing on the injunction that Champagne doesn’t harbor hostility against people with other characteristics protected under the Maine Civil Rights Act. The injunction places an additional onus on him as he serves a broad spectrum of clients at his business, fearing that any of them might use the injunction against him, Hornblower said.
Justice Jeffrey Hjelm asked Hornblower why he didn’t argue that the injunction against Champagne should only have applied to Groleau as the named victim and not to any person based on sexual orientation?
Hornblower said he wished he had made that argument.
Robbins said Champagne only needs to worry about violating the terms of the injunction if he engages in violence or threats of violence against anyone with a characteristic protected under the Maine Civil Rights Act.
Worrying for any other reason is “just absurd,” she said.
“It’s only if Mr. Champagne then acts out against that Somali customer with violence or threats of violence because he’s angry with him over a business dispute. I suggest to you that given his actions in this case, he is one bad business dispute away from coloring other groups of people with the same brush he colored based upon his bias against sexual orientation.”
Justice Donald Alexander asked Robbin whether the injunction isn’t, in effect, a “universal injunction against committing crimes?”
Robbin said she wouldn’t characterize it that way. Instead, it’s specifically described in terms of violating the Maine Civil Rights Act, she said. It says Champagne should comply with the civil rights law that he broke.
In response to Hornblower’s argument that his client was exercising his First Amendment right under the Constitution, Robbin said, “We are not going to bring a case if someone is just yelling odious terms as long as they are not connected, as they were in this case, with a threat to violence and acts of violence. We have no authority to regulate hate speech. It’s only hate speech that’s connected with conduct.”
The high court took the arguments under advisement. It is not expected to issue a decision in the near future.