By Justin Cox
Killeen Daily Herald
The political climate in Bell County is tense these days, to say the least.
So much so that a minor political statement has turned into a major headache for Bell County Sheriff Dan Smith, who may face civil action based on allegations that he violated First Amendment rights governing free expression.
At the heart of the matter lies a citizen's rights to display a political sign; the conflict arose when the sign was removed from a citizen's vehicle.
The sheriff maintains he was involved in requesting – not ordering – the removal of the sign while the vehicle was on county property; the owner, 72-year-old Doyle Dickens, argues the sheriff instructed one of his officers to order – not request – that Dickens remove the sign, an action that would violate his First Amendment rights.
"I'm just really dumbfounded as to how this has gotten twisted into some sort of cynical plot that it wasn't," Smith said Friday. "I think it's very unfortunate because it was a very simple, innocent incident that has been blown out of proportion to a great extent."
Dickens said he couldn't understand what he did wrong.
"To tell me to do something like this, it just surprised me, it just shocked the hound out of me," Dickens said. "I don't understand why people have to be so rude. I'm on the property, sure, but they called me to come there. I thought I had as much right on that property as you have. It makes me feel real little, it makes me feel betrayed."
Requested or ordered?
On the morning of Aug. 15, Dickens, a long-time Bell County resident, pulled into the sheriff's office parking lot with a magnetic political sign on his door that bore the name of his grandson, Phillip Anelli, who is running for the Precinct 1 seat on the Commissioner's Court against incumbent Richard Cortese.
Dickens was hired by the county to repair the windshield of a deputy's vehicle when he was approached by Lt. Gary Zimmerman, whom he has known personally for about 15 years. Zimmerman was in street clothes, not his uniform, but still displayed a badge. Dickens said he interpreted Zimmerman's words as orders from a law enforcement officer.
The sheriff said he never used his authority to send anyone to force Dickens to remove the Anelli sign, that it was a person-to-person request.
Dickens has been displaying "Phillip Anelli for county commissioner" on an 18-inch by 24-inch magnetic sign since March, and has performed windshield repair services in that same parking lot for the county many times since, he said. But this time was different.
Anelli and Dickens share a history of outspoken political opposition to the sheriff and many county policies, and are convinced the actions of the sheriff are politically motivated.
Smith said differences in political ideology played no part in his decision-making process.
"I think if there were any feelings of that nature of any kind, I doubt very seriously that Mr. Dickens would have been invited to come work on a patrol car," he said. "It just doesn't fly."
The sheriff believes there are political motives driving Anelli and Dickens to publicly and legally condemn the sheriff.
"I have to, at this point, because I've been waiting all week for Mr. Dickens to come visit me, because he said that he would," Smith said. "I have to assume it's become a political issue now, which it shouldn't have.
"I think it's political silly season, and this fits right in."
The incident led Dickens to seek legal recourse. That action began by sending the district attorney's office a complaint letter.
District Attorney Henry Garza confirmed on Friday that his office received a signed letter submitted by Dickens Tuesday afternoon. The letter provided a detailed account of the incident Aug. 15, as told by Dickens. In the letter, Dickens charges deputies with the Sheriff's Office with violating his civil rights, and that he believed those officers were acting under the orders of the sheriff.
By late Friday afternoon, Dickens said an investigator with the DA's office informed him that the findings do not support prosecution of a criminal case.
On the civil side, defense attorney Jeff Parker said Dickens has a case against the Sheriff's Office.
"If he's using his authority to restrain someone's civil rights, that's wrong, no matter what his motivation may be," Parker said. "The actual law says anyone acting as a government agency, if they violate civil rights under color of law, they are subject to a law suit and are personally liable. That could be a pretty steep bill the county would have to cover."
Some races are OK?
Maj. Bob Patterson works under Sheriff Smith as the Bell County Jail administrator.
His truck has a sticker promoting House District 55 Republican nominee Ralph Sheffield in the back window.
The sheriff, who has publicly endorsed Sheffield, said he doesn't find anything wrong with that.
Smith makes a distinction between the Commissioners Court race and other political races because it "has a direct bearing on the Sheriff's Office," he said. "The commissioners have direct control over the budget. So it's a little more sensitive because of that. It was simply a request from a friend that's been blown out of proportion."
By distinguishing based on content, the sheriff is on legally shaky ground, possibly violating speech specifically protected by the First Amendment.
The Supreme Court has ruled in many cases that government has no power to restrict expression because of its message, its ideas, its subject matter or its content. Supreme Court rulings state "elective exclusions from a public forum may not be based on content alone, and may not be justified by reference to content alone."
Those guarantees extend to public employees and private contractors – such as Dickens – employed by a government entity.
The Supreme Court ruled in 1983 in Connick v. Myers that expression by a public employee pertaining to "any matter of political, social, or other concern to the community is presumptively protected under the First Amendment."
"There was never any intent to infringe upon him or cause him any ill will, or violate any right, First Amendment or otherwise," the sheriff said.
Parker said the sheriff's notion of distinguishing which race to cover based on close proximity holds no ground.
"There's no distinction. ... Across the street from county commissioners is not excluded in freedom of speech," he said. "But the key question, is he doing it as a person? If so, he wouldn't be subject to a lawsuit. It's a fact question, whether it was under the authority or color of law, that's the government stepping in where they don't belong.
"My advice to both of them would be to just settle down and don't do it again."
Smith explained that Dickens was hired by the county to do work on county property, and so was representing the Sheriff's Office.
"Mr. Dickens has every right (to political freedom), and I would expect Mr. Dickens to support his (grandson)," the sheriff said. "All we were asking for was a little courtesy to keep the sheriff's office neutral in this race. ... It was just awkward because I had been working so hard on trying to get pay raises for the deputies."
Those pay raises had already been approved, according to County Judge Jon Burrows, long before the Aug. 15 incident, and done as part of the finalization of the budget.
Changes were still possible, Burrows said, but highly unlikely. "It is theoretically possible, though it has not happened in the 10 years I have been in office," Burrows said.
Looking for resolution
Smith said this whole thing could have been resolved easily. He said he's still waiting for Dickens to call back.
"I think it's a big misunderstanding. If I had ordered or caused anybody to order him to do anything he didn't want to do, that would have been wrong," the sheriff said. "But that didn't happen. It's an unfortunate situation that was never intended to be harmful."
Contact Justin Cox at firstname.lastname@example.org or (254) 501-7568.
Are you making a big deal out of this because it could help you in your campaign? Actually I think this will hurt my election chances. I'm getting involved because this is my grandfather. If they really wanted to pick a fight, they'd ask me to take my signs off. But their chances are far worse than picking on a 72-year-old man. This was a horrible way to treat a citizen.
Are you making too big a deal out of this? I certainly don't claim to know everything, but we've had a week to sit on this. It's not about anything else other than what's right and what's not. We're talking about a good, honest, retired citizen of this county that was mistreated by the person who is supposed to defend and protect him.
Bell County Sheriff Dan Smith
Do you believe that it's okay for your deputies to have political signs on vehicles? If it's their personal vehicle, then yes, I do.
Would you act differently if you had it to do over again? Certainly knowing now that it was taken the way it was, yes, I would not have done it. It was done from a friend to a friend in an innocuous request, and that apparently was taken the wrong way.
Were you enforcing a county policy regarding political signage? This really doesn't have anything to do with a policy. It was just a situation where it kind of appeared awkward given the fact that we were right in the middle of our budget negotiations.
Were your actions in any way politically motivated as Phillip Anelli and Doyle Dickens allege? I suppose there are some people who might think that, but it doesn't change the fact that this was simply a request. If the individual didn't want to do it, there certainly wasn't going to be any action after that. It was involving a race that directly involved the Sheriff's Office, and I just want the Sheriff's Office to remain neutral in the county commissioner's race.
Did you order, instruct or direct Lt. Gary Zimmerman or any other law enforcement officer under your command to use their status as a peace officer to require Dickens to remove the political signs from his vehicle? Absolutely not.
Did you go down the parking lot to see if the signs were still on the vehicle? No. I was just leaving the building. I happened to be parked 10 feet from where he was working.
Had Dickens arrived with an incumbent's political sign on his vehicle, would you have made the same request? You know, I've thought about that. I can honestly tell you that if the roles were reversed, and Mr. Anelli had been the incumbent and Mr. Cortese had been the challenger, all circumstances given the same, I'm sure I would have had the same reaction.
Bell County Judge Jon Burrows
Would you take offense to a political rival's campaign signs on a vehicle sitting in the parking lot of the sheriff's office? I don't think we would even know about it.
Can you envision any situation where you would request that a private citizen remove a political sign from his or her vehicle? Yes. If my wife put up a political sign for someone else in our yard, I would request that it be removed. We really don't pay that much attention. (The commissioners) are such ethical people, it just doesn't come up. They don't do stuff like that.
Could the sheriff be reasonably concerned about the potential effect the sight of a rival's political advertisement could have on the budget as it pertains to him? I can't speak for the sheriff, but our budget was already done prior to (the date of the incident).
– Justin Cox