Judge Reprimanded for Jailing Guy Who Gave Him the Raspberry

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I think I'm with the judge on this one, even if the state supreme court said he screwed up.

Municipal Court Judge Emery Toth was reprimanded last month for violating the New Jersey Code of Judicial Conduct by "speaking disrespectfully and intemperately to a litigant" and for abusing his contempt power by throwing the litigant in jail after he responded.  The litigant had escalated matters, though, by using certain well-known gestures and that time-honored salute, the "raspberry."

The defendant, a cab driver named Esmanuel Buldoni (a.k.a., oddly, "Luis Martinez"), had been charged with three traffic violations.  He was in prison at the time of his arraignment, possibly because he had failed to show up for a prior court date, and so the exchange took place over a video link to the courtroom.  After Buldoni pleaded not guilty, he and the judge got into a dispute over why exactly Buldoni was in prison at the time.  After a short exchange, Judge Toth ended the argument.  "I don't want to have an Oprah Winfrey conversation with you," he said.  "All right? . . . I'll give you a trial date next week.  See you around.  Goodbye."

According to Toth, Buldoni then made the "raspberry" sound and gestured with his middle finger in a way that Toth said he interpreted as meaning "kiss off."  The kiss-off does not seem to have been a big deal, but the raspberry was not to be endured:

Toth: Let me explain something to you. . . . I’m a street guy. I didn't get offended when you gave me the old fist up in the air. That's OK. I didn't really care about that. But when you give me raspberries walking out and you give me some kind of disrespect like that, I'm just telling you that's contempt in the face of the court. You're going to jail. You're going to stay there for another 30 days.

Defendant: Appreciate it.

Toth: No, OK, I'm giving you 40 days, 45 days. I told you don't give me any attitude. You want to give me the (indiscernible [but possibly "the old fist up in the air"]) and you want to give me the lip. You want to disrespect …

Defendant: (Indiscernible)

Toth: Sixty days. Get out of here. Sixty days. Give him 60 days.

Defendant: No, give me 70.

Toth: Seventy-five.

As the advisory committee correctly noted, Buldoni's sentencing thus "more closely resembled an auction than a judicial proceeding."  Buldoni's clever bidding against himself ultimately got his sentence up to 180 days.  He complained about the judge's conduct, but did not appeal the contempt finding.

Link: ABA Journal
Link: New Jersey Law Journal