Whole conviction: Collins not forgiven his trespass

Albemarle General District Court routinely handles misdemeanor cases like trespassing, while Constitutional rights arguments are usually reserved for higher courts. Yet, in what might ultimately become a precedent-setting case, the issues converged October 24, and substitute Judge Steve Helvin found himself deciding whether private property rights trump free speech laws in Virginia.

The case goes back to May 7 when two Charlottesville institutions– Democratic candidates and Whole Foods supermarket– collided. Rich Collins, 70, was campaigning for the Democratic nomination for the 57th District General Assembly race in the potentially Dem-rich Whole Foods parking lot, part of the Shopper's World shopping center.

Shopper's World property manager Chuck Lebo asked Collins to leave because the shopping center allows no solicitations. Collins' refusal ignited the issue of where free speech belongs at publicly used property that's privately owned.

Helvin is the first judge to wrestle with the issue in this case.

"I'm telling you, I thought it would be more clear cut," said the folksy judge. "For someone born in the shadow of Monticello, this is one time I wouldn't mind going up to talk to the guy on the hill."

Helvin noted that back in Jefferson's day, people came to politick and vote in Court Square. The center of Albemarle County, Court Square was both publicly used and publicly owned.

Now, said Helvin, "There's not a clear divide about where you can practice free speech."

The judge said the major question was anticipating how the Supreme Court of Virginia would rule, and he wanted to be mindful that while courts don't make law, "We can protect people's rights," he said.

It was with some regret that Helvin ruled against what Collins did. "My personal view is that it should be allowed," said Helvin. "If I was on the Supreme Court, I'd rule in [Collins'] favor– but I don't think the Supreme Court will."

Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Cynthia Murray suggested the judge issue a fine and then suspend all or part of it. Helvin went with a $50 fine.

"I considered $1 fine to be symbolic," he said, "but decided to be consistent with other trespassing rulings."

Murray asked whether Collins would be allowed to go on Shopper's World property, and Helvin declined to rule on that.

After the verdict, Collins walked over to shake Chuck Lebo's hand.

Lebo, who's worked in real estate for 30 years, was pleased with the outcome. "I'm for free speech," said Lebo. "I think it should be held on public property. Let's leave private property private, and public property public."

Rutherford Institute attorney Frazier Solsberry remarked to Lebo, "I think we'll see more of each other." And in fact, the ACLU/Rutherford Institute legal team assisting Collins has filed a civil suit against Lebo in Albemarle Circuit Court, "asking the court to declare this application of trespassing unconstitutional under Virginia law," said Solsberry.

Collins was not surprised at his trespassing conviction. "I think Judge Helvin probably made the right decision– the Supreme Court would not uphold it."

But he hasn't paid the $50 fine yet. "Yes, of course we're appealing," says Collins.

Rich Collins: He'll be back. FILE PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO