TRENTON — They’ve busted him for smoking pot, running a business past curfew, and not keeping his restaurant’s kitchen clean enough.

On Friday, however, it was Ed Forchion’s mouth that got him slapped in handcuffs, freedom of speech notwithstanding.

Days after Forchion stood outside his eatery and pot temple shouting “f--- the police!” and calling one of the police officers a “pedophile,” NJ Weedman was charged with cyber-harassment and disorderly conduct.

The cyber-harassment charge, according to a copy of the complaint filed by Officer Herbert Flowers, was based on a Facebook and YouTube video of the confrontation in which Forchion is heard telling Flowers he’s a pedophile, while the disorderly conduct was for Forchion’s F-bombs against police “in public and social media forum.”

And while cyber-harassment is a fourth-degree crime and disorderly conduct is a petty disorderly persons offense, Trenton police sent its Violent Crimes Unit Warrant Squad to arrest Forchion and take him away in a black unmarked car.

(Trenton, by the way, is one of the state’s most crime-ridden cities. Just three months into this year, the state's capital already had recorded at least three homicides, 13 reported rapes, 88 robberies, 132 violent assaults, 214 burglaries and 95 car thefts.)

Forchion on Saturday called the charges “frivolous” — and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey says he’s right.

“It’s pretty ridiculous,” said Alex Shalom, senior staff attorney at the ACLU-NJ, which often litigates First Amendment cases.

“They very plainly can’t sustain their charges for either one.”

Trenton vs. Weedman

From the perspective of Weedman, never averse to the publicity that his arrests bring him, this is another example of the city harassing him and his customers.

“This is what I’ve been going through,” he said Saturday, after he had been bailed out of jail the previous night. “I’m in battle with the Trenton Police Department. That was not my intention at all. I’m just trying to have a business and to make a statement.”

But that statement — the legalization of marijuana — doesn’t appear to have been welcomed by city officials, who are embroiled in a federal civil rights lawsuit filed by Forchion. The lawsuit claims that the city’s efforts to shut down his Joint and adjoining Liberty Bell Temple violate his religious freedom.

The business and sanctuary directly face City Hall.

City officials have targeted the establishment for violating the city’s curfew. Forchion says the Temple, where people with legal medical marijuana cards and others go to smoke marijuana, is separate from the restaurant and therefore exempt.

A month after he filed the lawsuit, a SWAT team raided the establishment, arresting Forchion and 10 others on charges of marijuana possession and distribution.

Since then, police have made almost daily visits to the restaurant, stopping their cars in the middle of traffic and ticketing customers and congregants. Some of his regulars who are medical marijuana patients say they are afraid of being arrested, even though they’re subject to the state’s medical-marijuana law.

This all prompted Forchion on Tuesday to stand outside his store with a sign that read “W-R-Open F--- the police!”

A man who was inside the Joint came out to record the scene and was issued a littering ticket for throwing his cigarette butt on the ground.

Who's harassing who?

Shalom said the offensive language provision of the disorderly conduct charge was ruled unconstitutional by a state appellate decision in 1985, even though it remains on the books and is occasionally used by police to charge individuals.

Courts around the country have struck down similar laws in recent years.

Shalom says the government can’t criminalize speech just because it’s offensive.

“It’s unenforceable and they should know that,” he said.

As for the cyber-harassment, Shalom says this law only considers an online posting a crime if “what you post is lewd, obscene or indecent — and saying that someone is a pedophile is none of those things.”

The law was signed by Gov. Chris Christie in 2014 following several high-profile cases involving teens who committed suicide after being mercilessly bullied by peers at school and online.

It seems like the Trenton police is correct in saying that Mr. Forchion is involved in harassment, except that the victim of that harassment is Mr. Forchion and not the police.

The law defines cyber-harassment as an internet posting that threatens physical harm; shares “any lewd, indecent, or obscene material” with the “intent to emotionally harm a reasonable person;” and threatens to commit a crime against another person. Someone found guilty of this fourth-degree crime faces up to 18 months in prison.
Before the law was passed, civil liberties advocates like the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education warned that it was too vague and threatened free speech.

But Shalom says the charge against Forchion wouldn’t even amount to a civil liberties test case because the law doesn’t apply to what he’s been accused of doing.

“Literally, Mr. Forchion didn’t violate what the statute prohibits,” he said.

“It seems like the Trenton police is correct in saying that Mr. Forchion is involved in harassment, except it seems that the victim of that harassment is Mr. Forchion and not the police," he said."

The criminal complaint and warrant was signed by the target of Forchion’s outburst: Flowers, who’s been a police officer for 16 years and earns $91,870 a year.

The short text of the complaint, rife with spelling and grammatical errors, claims that Forchion on Tuesday used Facebook and YouTube to “harass Officer H. Flowers, knowingly posts and comments intent to emotionally harm a reasonable person specifically stating directly at Officer H. Flowers while in public ‘Flowers your a pedophile and everybody out here know you are a f---ing pedophile.”

As a result of the arrest, police also charged Forchion with possession of under 50 grams of marijuana, which is disorderly persons offense. Forchion says police found “a crumb” of marijuana allegedly stuck to his hat.

His Municipal Court appearance on these charges is scheduled for Monday morning.

Trenton police officials could not be reached for comment over the weekend.

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Sergio Bichao is deputy digital editor at New Jersey 101.5. Send him news tips: Call 609-438-1015 or email sergio.bichao@townsquaremedia.com.