Public school, private property?

Published 10:14 pm Wednesday, July 16, 2014

A trespassing case in Suffolk Circuit Court on Wednesday centered on several interesting questions of law.

Is a public school public or private property? Suppose it has been leased by a private entity for an event to which the public is invited? Then, if it’s private property, who has the right to ask people to leave?

The answers to those complex questions, judging from the court’s analysis of the case, are not simple either.

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Sanford Pankin, a Hampton resident who was the defendant in the case, appealed the General District Court’s guilty verdict for his charge of trespassing at King’s Fork Middle School on Feb. 22, a Saturday, during a fundraising event held by the Suffolk Art League.

He contended that since King’s Fork is a public school and the event was co-sponsored by Suffolk Parks and Recreation, a public entity, he had the right to stand near the door and ask visitors to the art league’s annual antiques show to sign a petition for Libertarian U.S. Senate candidate Robert Sarvis.

“They were signing fairly frequently,” he said last month, before his initial court appearance where Wednesday’s trial date was set. “Not everybody, but enough people to make it worthwhile to be out there.”

But that wasn’t an acceptable situation to the art league, executive director Linda Bunch testified Wednesday. She said some antiques show patrons said Pankin had harassed them.

“The art league is a community nonprofit,” she said. “We do not want to appear political in any way, shape or form. It can affect our funding.”

After she asked him to leave and he didn’t comply, Bunch testified, she called the police non-emergency number to ask whether she had the right to ask him to leave.

The police dispatcher was unsure and sent an officer to the scene. The officer asked a school custodian, who was at the school as part of the lease requirements, to ask Pankin to leave — that way, whether the venue was considered private or public property, he had been asked by both sides, the officer testified.

Pankin still refused, and the officer testified he spent 30 to 45 minutes negotiating with Pankin before finally issuing him a summons for trespassing on school property.

Pankin still didn’t leave then, and more officers arrived. However, he testified he moved farther from the door — about 500 to 1,000 feet, he claimed.

Pankin said last month that it wasn’t until he contacted the chairman of the Virginia Libertarian Party and was advised by him to leave that he did so.

Prosecutor Vaughn Breedlove argued that representatives of the private entity leasing the school had the right to tell others to leave if they wanted, and Judge Carl Eason agreed. However, Eason ruled, the art league had control over only the gymnasium, cafeteria and common areas as noted in the lease agreement. Eason also decided the custodian’s instruction to leave was merely passing along the art league’s desire, not representing the school system.

Common areas were not defined in the lease agreement, so Eason was left to decide for himself. He ruled Pankin had been in the common area at first but not after he walked farther from the door and, as a result, dismissed the case.

Pankin said afterward he was happy the case had been dismissed but was disappointed the dismissal came on a technicality. He was hoping for a First-Amendment decision, he said after the trial.

“My opinion is still that my free speech rights were violated.”