Defendant arrested after refusing to wear mask, walking out of proceeding

Scott Swanson

A Sweet Home man was jailed for contempt of court Wednesday morning, June 24, after he refused to wear a face mask during a Municipal Court proceeding and allegedly left the courtroom while the judge was speaking to him.

John Kulbeth said he arrived early, with his 6-year-old daughter, for his 10 a.m. court appearance on two separate citations, for harassment and for failure to stop for bus safety lights, scheduled for June 24 and 26, respectively.

According to a statement issued by the city, Kulbeth had asked to combine his two separate hearings on the two charges to which he was answering.

The harassment charge stemmed from an April 28 incident in which a caller reported a male, identified in police records as Kulbeth, yelling at her son, who was driving a side-by-side, threatening to pull him through the window and following her son home in the area of 53rd and Main. A second caller reported the side-by-side speeding and nearly hitting the caller’s child.

Kulbeth, 30, was cited and released in field for harassment, according to police. He then signed a citation for the driver of the side-by-side, Brad Caudill, 16, for careless driving and failure to obey a traffic control device. In cases in which a citizen signs a citation, the citizen, rather than the city attorney, prosecutes the case in Municipal Court.

Kulbeth said he and his daughter arrived on Wednesday and sat down in a corner of the Municipal Court courtroom at Sweet Home Police Department.

According to the city statement, Kulbeth refused to be fingerprinted when he arrived at court and, after courtroom staff asked him to wear a mask and showed him where they were located, “he would not wear a mask.”

Court staff members repeated that masks were required.

“During that interaction, Mr. Kulbeth did not state he was unable to wear a mask,” the city statement said.

After City Attorney Robert Snyder reiterated the court’s policy, “Kulbeth indicated that the judge could tell him,” the city’s statement said.

Municipal Court Judge Larry Blake then entered the courtroom and asked Kulbeth to put on a mask. Kulbeth refused, the statement said.

Kulbeth said Blake entered the courtroom and immediately sat down and asked Kulbeth, “Why aren’t you wearing a mask?”

Kulbeth told the judge he had “breathing problems, so I’m not wearing a mask,” he said. He said he has had recurring bouts of pneumonia “approximately 30 times in my adult life.”

He said later he didn’t know that he was required to wear a mask and he doubted the legality of the requirement.

According to the city, “instructions were mailed to each person scheduled for an upcoming court hearing. The letter also included an invitation to contact the court if a defendant had any questions or concerns.”

The face mask policy implemented by Blake was based on a May 15 order by Oregon Chief Justice Martha Walters giving directions for court operations in the state during the COVID-19 recovery, which specifically give a presiding judge the right to provide and require that occupants of courtrooms wear masks.

Blake, he said, threatened him with contempt of court.

“I said, ‘Fine, I’ll just leave,’” Kulbeth said, adding that “I walked out.”

Reaching his truck, he was approached by Police Chief Jeff Lynn, who had been in the courtroom, who told him the judge had issued a warrant for his arrest on charges of contempt of court and failure to appear.

Kulbeth said he had to call his wife, who was at work, to come get their daughter.

Then, he said, he was “full-on booked” and put in a holding cell “for two hours, handcuffed to the wall,” before Blake arrived to talk with him.

Blake arraigned him while in custody based upon Kulbeth’s failure to appear, according to the city statement, which added that the judge offered Kulbeth the opportunity “to provide documentation of a health condition to receive appropriate accommodations.” 

The judge granted him a continuance until July 22, but warned him he would need to wear a mask in the courtroom or face a 30-day jail sentence, Kulbeth said.

City Manager Ray Towry said Kulbeth was arrested “for his behavior, not for refusing to wear a mask.

“In any court at any time, if you leave in the middle of any interaction with the judge, I believe you will be charged with contempt of court. He didn’t work anything out with the judge; he didn’t try to make any arrangement.

“He told the judge he was leaving and went to the truck, and started loading up his daughter.”

Towry and Kulbeth had a “positive, amicable” meeting Thursday, June 25, to discuss the incident. Towry reiterated the judge’s legal authority in the courtroom but offered to consider any contrary legal opinions that Kulbeth would be able to provide, according to the city statement.