Protests

First Batch of Inauguration Day Protesters Acquitted In Key First Amendment Case

The Justice Department's attempt to prosecute six anti-Trump protesters falls flat on its face, but it says more trials will follow.

|

Carol Guzy/ZUMA Press/Newscom

Six defendants facing charges of rioting for their alleged roles in Inauguration Day protests earlier this year were acquitted today, in what civil liberties groups have called a key test of free speech and dissent under the Trump administration.

The acquittal is an embarrassing start to the Justice Department's attempt to prosecute roughly 200 protesters arrested by the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) of Washington, D.C., during the chaotic January 20 protests.

During Donald Trump's inauguration, as protests spilled through the streets of D.C., several groups of masked rioters began smashing windows, damaging cars, and injuring several police officers. In response, MPD encircled and arrested en masse one large group of protesters. But many of those arrested say they had nothing to do with the destruction and were subjected to excessive force by police.

Prosecutors for the government argued that, while there was no physical evidence linking the six defendants—who included a journalist and two street medics—to property destruction, they were part of a criminal conspiracy to aid or support rioters. Defense lawyers responded that the charges were nothing more than an overreaching attempt to punish political speech.

D.C. Superior Court Judge Lynn Leibovitz acquitted the defendants of felony charges of inciting a riot before sending the rest of the charges to a jury. The jury returned verdicts of not guilty on all the remaining counts of felony property destruction, misdemeanor rioting, and misdemeanor conspiracy to riot.

Scott Michelman, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a press statement that today's verdict "reaffirms two central constitutional principles of our democracy: first, that dissent is not a crime, and second, that our justice system does not permit guilt by association.

"We hope today's verdict begins the important work of teaching police and prosecutors to respect the line between lawbreaking and constitutionally protected protest," he continued. "We hope that the U.S. Attorney's Office gets the message and moves quickly to drop all remaining changes against peaceful demonstrators."

That hope appears to be in vain. Twenty more trials of small batches of Inauguration Day defendants are scheduled to run through 2018, all on the taxpayer's dime. "We appreciate the jury's close examination of the individual conduct and intent of each defendant during this trial and respect its verdict," the U.S. Attorney's Office said in a statement. "In the remaining pending cases, we look forward to the same rigorous review for each defendant."

The Justice Department has also been fighting to access protest organizers' Facebook accounts, as well as the IP addresses of those who visited a J20 protest website, in another move that has alarmed civil libertarians. The ACLU of D.C. has also filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the MPD in response to the mass arrest, pepper-spraying, and detention of J20 protesters.

But for at least six defendants whose lives were turned upside down by the prosecution and trial, their day in court is over.

Advertisement

NEXT: Will Opening Up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Spark Another Alaska Oil Boom?

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. The acquittal is an embarrassing start to the Justice Department’s attempt to prosecute roughly 200 protesters arrested by the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) of Washington, D.C., during the chaotic January 20 protests.

    Prosecutors for the government argued that, while there was no physical evidence linking the six defendants?who included a journalist and two street medics?to property destruction, they were part of a criminal conspiracy to aid or support rioters.

    These two sentences don’t jive. Unless separating the wheat from the chaff is an embarrassing way to harvest grain. You yourself describe the protests as chaotic, which means even if the crackdown was put in place with the utmost precision and brutality the odds were good that some of the wrong people would be arrested. It would only make sense that they would be released and/or acquitted first (esp. since the overwhelming majority of protesters were arrested and ‘jailed’ just long enough to issue them a summons to appear).

    1. I mean, considering given some-to-many of the protesters’ political rhetoric, I expected 200 of these people to turn up dead in a roadside mass grave. Relatively getting picked up, charged and released, and subsequently acquitted sounds pretty appropriate for at least some of the people “guilty” of “being present at a riot”.

      1. Too bad the conspiracy charges were thrown out before the trial, because if we had been allowed to present the whole case we could definitely have gotten them convicted and held accountable for their actions. I say let these cases go to trial and have the appellate courts deal with the “First Amendment” nonsense, just the way we did with America’s leading criminal “satire” case in New York. A few retroactive rulings and we could at least get some of the charges to stick. Did anyone consider that these people were seeking to injure our national leader’s reputation with their “dissent”? See the documentation at:

        https://raphaelgolbtrial.wordpress.com/

    2. You know that prosecutors don’t have to charge everyone who gets arrested, right? The Justice Department weren’t the ones who made the arrests, and it may be understandable that the MPD wrongfully arrested some people “in good faith” in the midst of a chaotic situation. That doesn’t mean the Justice Department can’t or shouldn’t be criticized for charging the wrongfully arrested.

      1. That doesn’t mean the Justice Department can’t or shouldn’t be criticized for charging the wrongfully arrested.

        The situation was acknowledged as being chaotic. Who discharges people without charge or summons when they’re (not) violently protesting at the inauguration, the local PD or the DOJ? I have been present for more than one riot and know people (rightly) tried and convicted as well as people released without charge, not being a lawyer, I legitimately don’t know the answer in this case. As I said in my continuation/reply/self-rebuttal, considering that we expected to find these people’s bodies in ditches, an acquittal for something they didn’t do doesn’t seem extremely or even really modestly overbearing.

  2. dissent is a crime when it includes violence but the government must prove it which they didn’t here.

  3. Is this the same rationale that meant the dozens of cops who fired hundreds of bullets into a single car were all innocent of murder because none of the bullets could be determined to have been the fatal shots, and therefore none of the individual cops could be linked to the killings?

  4. This verdict annoys me. I only hope that by the next inauguration day, there will be enough cameras that individuals who damage property can be singled out, prosecuted successfully, and made to pay damages. (And that laws against wearing masks are upheld, so that the cameras can do their job.)

    1. Psst, the website where people applaud the jackboot of the state is over there.

      1. *Reads upthread*

        I stand corrected.

      2. Meanwhile, civilized people must live under the jackboot of the anarchists, who, unlike “the state”, voters have no ability to alter.
        “Progressing towards chaos”; what a great motto.

  5. Comrade feminists come to with me and others to the March on Washington Against The Traitor Trump (MoWATT).

    #MoWATT-2018!!!

    Join us this New Years Eve 2017 as we bring in a New Year for a New Deal 2018 !

    We will be walking behind:

    Rosie ODonnell, Lady Gaga and her mom Madonna, and Ashley Judd’s as she re-performs her “Nasty Woman” Speech!

    Extra Special – Witch Amanda Yates Garcia holding a communal Cast Out Trump Spell.

    Be There for Herstory !

  6. “Prosecutors for the government argued that, while there was no physical evidence linking the six defendants?who included a journalist and two street medics?to property destruction, they were part of a criminal conspiracy to aid or support rioters.”

    Participating in Black Bloc tactics is in fact conspiracy to commit terrorism.

    Political rioting is not protest or speech. It is terrorism.

    Lock them up.

  7. “We appreciate the jury’s close examination of the individual conduct and intent of each defendant during this trial and respect its verdict. In the remaining pending cases, we look forward to the same rigorous review for each defendant.”

    If that’s the standard, why don’t we try every member of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for, oh, corruption. Let’s closely examine their conduct — after jailing them for a few days and disrupting their lives for a year and costing them them some tens of thousands of dollars. Hey, if they are innocent, they’ll be acquitted.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.