A Tyler Man Is Suing the City After He Was Arrested for Swearing When He Picked Up His Missing Bird

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In May 2014 Joe Cotten’s 85-year-old parrot, Oliver, went missing from his backyard. When he received word that the bird, which he believed had been stolen, had been turned in at the Tyler police station, he probably didn’t expect that his trip to retrieve Oliver would end with him in handcuffs.

That’s what happened, though, after a curious encounter with the police department staffers who brought Cotten his bird. As KLTV in Tyler reports, when Cotten saw the bird—whose wings had been clipped—his attorney admits that he uttered “a curse word or two, including the ‘f-word.’” He and his wife then apparently stormed out of the room, and an employee, Michelle Lira, promptly called 911.

The transcript of Lira’s emergency call is, frankly, kind of weird: 

Lira: Hey, who's coming up here to the lobby?
Dispatch: Um, not sure.  It's going to be a little bit probably.
Lira: We have both parties here now, we have the lady that found [the bird] and the lady that actually came and picked [the bird] up and the people in the lobby are very upset.
Dispatch: Are they, like, fighting?
Lira: They almost pushed me on their way out of the interview room.

Cotten was arrested on charges of disorderly conduct and assault. And the Tyler municipal court held its longest trial ever in Judge Allen Ross’s courtroom—which ended with Cotten being acquitted on the assault charge, since “almost” pushing past someone isn’t the same thing as actually assaulting them. (The disorderly conduct charge, meanwhile, was dropped by the judge before the trial began.) And, indeed, the jurors in the case seemed downright befuddled by the fact that this had come to a trial at all. The station reports: 

"They were stealing this man's money, his name, his reputation, and his time," said [jury foreman Ronnie] Riggs. "We wanted each and every one of those people fired, even the police officers, for trying to frame a citizen."

Rather than simply return to the courtroom and read a not-guilty verdict, the jurors wanted to make a statement.

The other jurors asked Riggs to address the court on behalf of the jury.

According to court transcripts, Riggs said in open court:

"We'd like to apologize to Mr. Cotten and his wife.  We are very embarrassed.  This, in our total belief, has been from day once a farce, a waste of this man's time… and a total waste of the prosecutor's time.”

Riggs went on admonish officials for backing under oath what he called a falsified report.

To be sure, it is impolite to swear in front of people who are returning your missing bird to you—even if seeing a family pet that’s been mutilated after a suspected theft is the exact sort of situation where many might utter an intemperate word. But the idea that reacting emotionally in that situation is illegal—and that an “almost pushed me” would be transformed, in court, into an actual physical assault—is troubling. And that’s led Cotten, following his acquittal, to pursue a case of his own. 

Cotten’s attorney, Cody Skipper, has filed a federal malicious prosecution lawsuit against the City of Tyler, noting that the prosecutors have the discretion to not take unnecessary cases to trial, and that there are rarely consequences for malicious prosecution. That’s a fair point—prosecutors throughout Texas are seldom held accountable for misdeeds, in cases both big and small. And though the story of a missing bird and a swear word may seem like an unlikely place for justice to be served, it’s a fine place to start. 

(for more on Cotten and his parrot, read the Austin American-Statesman’s report from July 10th, by Eric Dexheimer.)

(Photograph by J. Stephen Conn, via Flickr)

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