Protest arrests may clog courts
- Eric Bartels
- Portland Tribune - News
Lawyer for protesters, DA's office prepare for courtroom maneuvers
With arrests from recent antiwar protests in Portland mounting, the Multnomah County district attorney's office is facing an increased workload with diminished resources and a defense team that plans to complicate the task.
Police arrested 135 protesters on March 20, the day after the United States launched a war in Iraq, and disturbances over subsequent days have brought the total to about 165, according to Portland police.
'This places a hardship on the office,' said District Attorney Mike Schrunk. 'It's difficult, but we'll deal with it as best we can.'
Prosecution of the cases is complicated by the state budget crisis, which has led to the elimination of Friday court days and delayed proceedings of most criminal cases until July.
'We are not able to appoint (defense) attorneys on most nonpersonal felonies and all nonpersonal misdemeanors,' Schrunk said. 'The court is not proceeding on those.'
All of the protesters who were arrested during the past week face misdemeanor charges, primarily disorderly conduct and failure to disperse.
And then there are the tactics planned by activist lawyer Stuart Sugarman, who makes no secret of his strategy for handling these cases in a way that will make police less likely to arrest protesters in future. With the help of other local attorneys, Sugarman said, he will defend as many protesters as possible, using the letter of the law to the fullest.
'What I want is for the DA's office to be concerned about large numbers of protesters coming into court,' he said. 'That way they take every arrest decision and every prosecution decision seriously.'
Sugarman said his goal is to overload the docket by advising clients not to 'plea out,' which means agreeing to reduced charges in exchange for a guilty plea. Ultimately, he hopes the strategy will decrease the number of protesters arrested.
'The law is being enforced against the protesters to encourage them to not speak out,' he said. 'A lot of people don't do things because they're afraid of getting arrested. We're trying to bring down that fear a little bit.'
Police said that tactic won't affect their work, but Deputy District Attorney Kevin Demer said the strategy worked to some degree when Sugarman and other attorneys defended about 60 protesters who were arrested in downtown Portland in 1998 following bombing in Iraq.
Demer said the 'defense collectively worked in writing very detailed and compelling arguments,' leading to the conviction of fewer than half of those charged with misdemeanors. He said the outcome did lead to 'improved communications' between police and the district attorney's office.
Fine called suitable penalty
Schrunk said the district attorney's office will seek to reduce misdemeanor arrests to violations, which involve a fine and no jail time. He said that approach has nothing to do with the budget issue.
'People have a right to protest, that's what a democracy is all about,' Schrunk said. 'Some people go over the line. Most of these are probably worth a fine. That's an appropriate punishment.'
Demer said the office will do what it usually does.
'We've typically reduced disorderly conduct to a violation. It's not the crime of the century. But the community knows there's a direct relationship between resources and our ability to prosecute cases. We don't have a lot of bodies.'
Sugarman conceded that probably about 75 percent of those arrested will accept a plea bargain. But those who don't, he suggested, could have a large impact on the justice system.
'The nature of an intense defense is that it will require people to come back again and again,' he said. 'We'll take it off the violation docket, which is easy, and get it on the misdemeanor docket. There are always things to look for to slow down the process and complicate the process.'
Sugarman, who has built a high-profile practice as an environmental lawyer, has previously fought the prosecution of antigovernment protesters, who he says threaten the established order.
'What they're doing is heroic, and they need to be protected for that,' Sugarman said. 'They aren't criminals. They're people who are speaking up for the rest of us.'
'Doing the best we can'
Police spokesman Sgt. Brian Schmautz said the city and the police have no agenda other than to enforce the law.
'Our community in general has a very high tolerance for free speech,' Schmautz said. 'Where the public draws the line is with the illegal activity. If they want to say their words, we let people do it,' he said. 'But when they disrupt people's right to maneuver about town, then we have an issue.
'I don't think the number of people we arrest has anything to do with whether we've done our job successfully,' Schmautz said.
Some accused the police of too much restraint, others say the police have responded heavy-handedly.
'Since last Thursday the police have been way too aggressive, and I'm not sure what's driving it,' said Dan Handelman of Peace and Justice Works, a local citizens organization that includes the police watchdog group Copwatch. 'I saw people getting thrown to the ground for merely stepping off the sidewalk. It seems like an overreaction.'
Schmautz said politics are not part of the equation for the police, but he acknowledged that passions are high on all sides.
'If you think President Bush is doing the right thing, you're angry with the protesters. If you think Bush is wrong, you can't believe cops are trying to stop these people from trying to stop the war. It all comes down to how you feel about this war,' he said.
'It's hard to be the people who have to figure out where the line is,' he said, referring to police working the protests. 'You can't control what's going on in Iraq, but you can control your streets. Every protest is a learning experience. We're doing the best we can.'
Deputy District Attorney Wayne Pearson said his office, though understaffed, will handle the workload. 'They basically rise to whatever occasion. They work nights and weekends. I'm often amazed at how willing they are to pitch in and get things done.'
He said the amount of police work focused on the protesters may have reduced the number of other cases his office would normally handle. 'So much resources are being dumped on one problem, it may be taking away from other things,' he said.