Vegas judge jails unhappy customer

Diana Bickel is upset with the east side jewelry store called Tower of Jewels, at 896 E. Sahara Ave. She contends a one-carat engagement diamond which jewelers at the store set in a ring at her behest proceeded to fall out of its setting one month later.

Tower of Jewels attorney Aaron Maurice says store owner Jack Weinstein believed the dispute had been resolved through the offices of the Better Business Bureau — Ms. Bickel was supposed to get a discount on another diamond.

But the merits of the dispute aren’t important. What’s important is that Ms. Bickel decided to start picketing the store last month, carrying signs that read “I have a problem with Tower Jewels” and “I want my cash back Jack.”

Last month, District Court Judge Susan Johnson looked into the ownership of the sidewalk in question, which sits on the border between Clark County and the city of Las Vegas. On Jan. 22, her honor ruled the sidewalk belongs to the business and issued a restraining order, commanding Ms. Bickel to stop exercising her First Amendment rights to free speech on the sidewalk in front of the store.

Ms. Bickel returned to the nearby street corner, obeying the pedestrian walk signal, carrying her signs out into the middle of the street at each change of the light.

On Feb. 5, Judge Susan Johnson held Ms. Bickel in contempt, ordering her to pay a $500 fine and immediately sending the disgruntled customer to jail, where she was to serve two days.

Judge Johnson was and is dead wrong. She certainly cannot claim Mr. Weinstein’s jewelry store owns the pedestrian crosswalk across Sahara Ave., where Ms. Bickel most recently walked. (In fact, lawyers for the Tower of Jewels actually contend their client controls the light pole where Ms. Bickel pushed the button for her “walk” light. The mind boggles. Are pedestrians of every age and state of fitness supposed to enter the store and ask permission to cross the street, or just run out in traffic like young bravos running with the bills in Pamplona? How much rent does the city pay Mr. Weinstein to locate its light poles on “his” sidewalk?)

But even on the matter of the ownership of the sidewalk directly in front of the store — who cares?

Are we to believe the owners of the Tower of Jewels could bar residents of Asian of African descent from using that part of the sidewalk, if they so desired? Could they bar passers-by from speaking Spanish or Shoshone on that sidewalk?

Heck, in this town, if it was the Culinary Union that had a grievance with Mr. Weinstein, they’d be free to build shacks on that sidewalk, fully equipped with cots, hotplates, and bullhorns.

In a directly related case, owners of the quasi-private Fremont Street Experience sought to bar panhandlers and solicitors from their outdoor pedestrian thoroughfares. They even went so far as to win approval of a municipal ordinance to that effect.

The 9th District Court of Appeals — which has jurisdiction over Judge Johnson’s court — promptly threw out that ordinance in 2003, ruling it unconstitutional.

According to that ruling, “Factors considered in determining whether an area constitutes a traditional public forum for First Amendment purposes are: 1. the actual use and purposes of the property, particularly the status as a public thoroughfare and availability of free public access to the area; 2. the area’s physical characteristics, including its location and existence of clear boundaries delimiting the area; and; 3. traditional or historic use of both the property in question and other similar properties.”

No matter who owns the underlying property, it’s a public sidewalk.

Yes, the judge would have a right and duty to intervene if it was shown Ms. Bickel had assaulted, blocked, or willfully intimidated other customers. But that’s not the issue under review.

The American Civil Liberties Union has now taken an interest in the case, vowing to journey to federal court to confirm Ms. Bickel’s right to carry signs on a public walkway.

They have a strong case. And anyone thinking of challenging Judge Johnson for her seat now has a strong issue, as well. Exercise your free-speech rights in Judge Johnson’s jurisdiction: Go to jail.

Comments are closed.