POLITICS

#BlackLivesMatter Activists in St. Louis Charged With Disturbance On Federal Property

If protesters fight the charges and lose, they face up to 30 days in jail and a fine.
<span>St. Louis police arrest a protester outside the Thomas F. Eagleton Federal Courthouse, Monday, Aug. 10, 2015. (AP Photo
St. Louis police arrest a protester outside the Thomas F. Eagleton Federal Courthouse, Monday, Aug. 10, 2015. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

#BlackLivesMatter activists DeRay Mckesson, Johnetta Elzie, along with others who staged a sit-in at the federal courthouse in St. Louis on Monday, were charged with disturbance on federal property, according to a copy of a summons obtained by The Huffington Post.

The charge is contained in a section of the Code of Federal Regulations that governs the maintenance of federal buildings and other property. It prohibits “exhibiting disorderly conduct” that “unreasonably obstructs the usual use of entrances, foyers, lobbies, corridors, offices, elevators, stairways, or parking lots.”

It wasn't clear if all 57 protesters who were arrested were charged under the same law. Many had been processed and released by Monday evening.

The charge is considered a “petty offense” -- which still can lead to a criminal record. Thousands of such cases are adjudicated quietly in federal courts across the country, often by the mere payment of a fine.

But the adjudication of federal petty offenses has been criticized for not affording defendants the constitutional protections associated with more serious criminal charges -- such as the right to an attorney for poor defendants or the right to a jury trial.

As drafted, the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, which control in these cases, are rife with caveats to move these cases through the system more quickly.

According to the local rules of the Eastern District of Missouri, the federal courthouse where the protests took place, activists could choose to pay the “forfeiture of collateral” -- a glorified term for the payment of a fine, after which the case ostensibly goes away. But the rules are unclear if doing so would amount to a guilty plea, which may have adverse consequences because it would remain on the defendant’s record. 

Or they could fight the charges in court, for which they would need to be represented by an attorney. If they lose, the maximum penalty activists face is 30 days in jail, a fine, or both.

But in practice and depending on a number of factors -- including each defendant’s prior criminal history, the quality of the legal representation, or even the whims of the prosecutor -- the charges could be dismissed. Some federal districts allow for “deferred prosecutions,” a type of probationary period after which the charges go away if the person stays out of trouble.

It's possible prosecutors want to play hardball. Federal authorities may consider the case to be of enough public salience to make an example out of the protesters. Stay tuned.

Ryan J. Reilly contributed reporting. 

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misidentified the procedure some federal prosecutors may invoke in low-priority cases. It is a "deferred prosecution," not an "adjournment in contemplation of dismissal."

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