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Woman Didn't Obstruct Police

4 May 2007

By Tracy Breton

PROVIDENCE - A state District Court judge yesterday acquitted Suzette Gebhard, the former head of the Governor's Justice Commission and president of the Rhode Island League of Women Voters, of obstruction of justice.

The charge stemmed from an incident in which Gebhard secreted her 90-year-old mother, who suffers from dementia, in her house in Warren, in an effort to keep a court-appointed guardian from seeing her.

Judge Jeanne E. LaFazia said she wanted to make it clear that she did not "condone" what Gebhard had done in refusing to open her door to police officers who had converged on her house in connection with a civil dispute she was having with her sister and her mother's guardian, lawyer Paula M. Cuculo.

"And I do not want you, Mrs. Gebhard, to in any way believe that I believe or I think your behavior was proper. It was not," she said.

The judge said the police had a right to knock down Gebhard's door to evict her mother, Laurette Bourduas Eifrig, who's now at an assisted-living facility in Providence.

But LaFazia said that based on legal arguments made by defense lawyer James T. McCormick, she felt compelled to dismiss the obstruction of justice charge that the attorney general's office had instructed the police to file. The judge said she was tossing the case based on the wording of Rhode Island's obstruction of justice statute.

Gebhard was charged with violating Section 11-32-1 of the Rhode Island General laws which says that "every person who shall obstruct any officer, civil, military, or otherwise, including any state, city or town police, sheriff, or firefighter, while in the execution of his or her office or duty, shall be imprisoned not exceeding one year or fined not exceeding $500."

LaFazia said that Town Solicitor Fausto C. Anguilla had presented her with case law in which a defendant has been convicted of obstruction of justice for refusing to open a door. "But in each of those cases," the judge said, "there were additional acts involved."

She said the testimony presented by the prosecution clearly showed that Gebhard had committed no "overt act" to hinder the police in performing their duty. She didn't barricade the door, push or strike them. According to the evidence, she had "merely refused to assist them" the morning of Jan. 29 by not obeying their commands to "open up" when they demanded access to her house at 7 Stonegate Rd.

The police and sheriffs testified during Gebhard's trial last month that "although the defendant was yelling, she was observed to be on the second-floor landing. Words alone can be an obstruction," said LaFazia, "but there is no evidence here that her words in any way obstructed the police officer from doing his duty."

"I find a mere refusal to come downstairs, to cooperate, to open a door, with absolutely nothing else is not enough to charge a defendant with a new crime under the Rhode Island statute," she said. "I do understand the police department's frustration here as well as the frustration which must have been felt by the sheriffs and certainly by attorney Cuculo." She said "the aggrieved parties" still have "some remedy" but that "the remedy is simply not in my court."

The judge told Gebhard that she could face up to six months in prison if a Superior Court judge found her guilty of civil contempt for refusing to let Cucolo visit with her mother. "These matters are not to be taken lightly," she told Gebhard, a former Democratic congressional candidate who has a doctorate in social work. "You may face other consequences as well."

Gebhard is currently blocked from having any contact with her mother based on an order issued by Superior Court Judge Alice B. Gibney who, over Easter weekend, deemed Gebhard a "kidnapping risk."

Gebhard, 60, and her younger sister, Francine Ardito, are engaged in a bitter tug of war over where their mother should live and who should have control of her finances.

They have both filed papers asking that Cuculo be removed as Eifrig's guardian. A trial on the guardianship has been set before Gibney for next Monday and Tuesday.

Ardito wants to move her mother back to Virginia, to an assisted-living facility closer to her.
Gebhard wants to move her mother in with her or to an assisted-living facility in Barrington.
Eifrig, who is blind and suffers from dementia, had been living for 13 years in an apartment in Reston, Va., when Gebhard - without notifying other family members - took her to Rhode Island to live with her. She then secreted her in her house for many months, violating court orders to give Cuculo and Ardito access to Eifrig.

Copyright 2007. Used with permission from The Providence Journal.

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