The sheriff of Kent County, Md., ordered his deputies to wear masks in court adorned with a thin blue line. That edict has now led to a convicted man getting a new trial.
It was so inappropriate, the state’s highest court found in a 5-to-2 decision, that Everett Smith’s right to a fair trial was violated when he was convicted in 2020 of second-degree assault and child abuse after a physical fight against his teenage daughter.
The “thin blue line” is often invoked as a metaphor for police standing against societal chaos; in 2014, a flag was created that became a popular symbol in the pro-police “Blue Lives Matter” movement. Its meaning is ambiguous, connoting to some a respect for the law and others a racist refutation of the Black Lives Matter movement. The flag has been displayed in police stations but also used to assault police at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
In 2019, Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich (D) barred the flag from county buildings, prompting a rebuke from Gov. Larry Hogan (R). In 2021, the Chief Judge of the District Court of Maryland banned the Blue Lives Matter symbol in courts under his jurisdiction.
At oral argument in June, Maryland public defender Michele D. Hall recalled watching the 2017 deadly far-right rally in Charlottesville on television and seeing “the Confederate flag, swastikas and the thin blue line carried by armed white supremacists.”
She added that “this was not the first time that the thin-blue-line symbol would feature prominently at white supremacist protests, nor would it be the last.”
Even if the sheriff’s office meant only to indicate support for fellow law enforcement, as suggested by an attorney for the state, Hall said “the intent of the wearer is irrelevant” with a symbol that has such potent “potential meanings.” Smith is Black.
Smith’s attorney objected to the mask at the start of his trial, according to the court record, saying that the masks “are not a choice that the bailiffs have” but “have been ordered by the elected sheriff of this county to be as part of their uniform.” The trial judge found that even if the sheriff was making “some sort of political statement” with the requirement, “it’s protected by the First Amendment.”
A lower appeals court ruled last year that “a prohibition on the wearing of ‘thin blue line’ symbols by courthouse staff may be a prudent prophylactic measure,” and would not violate their First Amendment rights. But that court found that the symbol’s “wide range of inferences” meant it was not inherently prejudicial.
As of March, masks are no longer required in Maryland courthouses. The Kent County Sheriff’s Office did not immediately return a request for comment.