The government is still trying to land a conviction from its mass arrest of participants in last year’s Inauguration Day protests in Washington, DC. So far, it has nothing to show for its efforts but a far-too-casual disregard for civil liberties.
The prosecutions began with the government’s breathtaking demand for the personal info of all 1 million+ visitors to the Disrupt J20 website. From there, things did not improve. The government’s prosecutors accused protest participants of “hiding behind the First Amendment” while attempting to strip away First Amendment protections. One of those charged by the government with rioting was journalist Alexi Wood, who had filmed the protests and had the footage to show he wasn’t a participant in violent or destructive acts.
The government compounded its unconstitutional behavior in court when its lawyer (Jennifer Kerkhoff) tried to downplay the significance of a foundational part of our justice system — that the accusers must prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” the accused committed a crime.
Kerkhoff: The defense has talked to you a little bit about reasonable doubt. You’re going to get an instruction from the Judge. And you can tell it’s clearly written by a bunch of lawyers. It doesn’t mean a whole lot. But look at the last line.
The Court: So wait…
Kerkhoff: I apologize.
The Court: I know she didn’t mean to say what she just said. But —
Kerkhoff:: It means a lot.
The Court: I just need to say, ladies and gentlemen, you will be instructed on reasonable doubt. You must follow each and every word of my instructions on reasonable doubt.
The Court: Ms. Kerkhoff did not mean to trivialize any portion of it, and it’s just as important that you understand —
Kerkhoff: I apologize.
The Court: — that every word of the reasonable doubt instructions, like all the rest of my instructions, are very important.
Kerkhoff: It’s an important instruction.
After these horrendous actions and the acquittal of its first batch of J20 prosecutees, the DOJ is finally going to attempt something a bit more targeted.
After a DC Superior Court jury acquitted the first group, prosecutors announcedthey were dropping charges against 129 remaining defendants, saying they would focus on defendants who allegedly engaged in “identifiable acts of destruction, violence, or other assaultive conduct,” who planned violence, or who participated in “black bloc” tactics to aid the property destruction that day.
Unfortunately, that still leaves a whole lot of defendants. The prosecutions began with more than 200 people charged. Only about a quarter of the original defendants are still awaiting their day in court.
[…]58 defendants remain charged and will face a judge and jury in at least nine more trials; jury selection for the next of these is scheduled to begin Monday.
The government is still giving itself plenty of leeway, though. It’s not simply interested in jailing those who actually committed property destruction during the J20 protests, but anyone it thinks it can pin a conspiracy to riot charge on.
The “conspiracy” angle is only going to do more damage to First Amendment rights. Simply having contact with someone charged with property damage/rioting could net defendants jail time. This is an effective way to deter future dissent, as it casts a chill on participating in protests against the government simply because the possibility of some participants engaging in criminal activity will always exist.
Denver civil rights attorney Jason Flores-Williams was a legal observer at the demonstration, but was disqualified from representing arrested protesters because the court saw this as a conflict of interest. In his view the prosecution means to send an even more pernicious message, which is that protest of the sort that the defendants engaged in is prohibited full stop.
“The important aspect here is that they’re going after fundamental associative rights. They implant the idea in the minds of the citizenry that even to discuss dissent or even ‘like’ a dissenting comment on Facebook can lead to prosecution. When that happens, democracy dies.”
It’s highly unlikely the last 58 defendants all engaged in property damage or destruction. That means a lot of the government’s targets will be facing nothing more than conspiracy charges. If the government succeeds in convincing a jury simply discussing participation in a protest that ultimately resulted in destructive acts from a small subset of participants is a criminal act in and of itself, the First Amendment is going to suffer. Given the history of these prosecutions, it’s clear the government either isn’t aware of the damage it’s doing or, more likely, does not care.