Wake DA drops charges against hundreds of legislative protesters
Posted September 19, 2014
Raleigh, N.C. — Trespassing charges were dropped Friday against hundreds people arrested last year during protests at the Legislative Building.
Interim Wake County District Attorney Ned Mangum's decision to dismiss the cases follows rulings in recent weeks by two District Court and one Superior Court judge to throw out cases against about a dozen protesters.
The judges all cited a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June that invalidated a buffer zone Massachusetts had set up around an abortion clinic to keep anti-abortion protesters at bay. The court said in that case that a state must determine who is "actually disrupting or obstructing legitimate governmental interests" and not infringe on the free speech rights of others.
The North Carolina judges likewise said the arrests at the Legislative Building violated the protesters right to peacefully assemble and speak, and the actions of General Assembly police weren't tailored narrowly enough to deal with any disturbance.
"It would be a waste of resources down here for us to go forward," Mangum said, noting 50 or so cases will go forward where actual offices were occupied or when people were in the Legislative Building when it was officially closed.
Between 500 and 600 cases are involved in Friday's decision. Other protesters have already taken their cases to trial – some were convicted, others acquitted – and still others went into a program that had the charges erased in exchange for community service.
"This doesn't mean that there's a free for all, but certainly protesting and the First Amendment is a big part of our lives here in the United States," Mangum said. "You can certainly protest, but there are some limits to protest."
More than 900 people were arrested last year during the weekly "Moral Monday" demonstrations against a legislative agenda that the protesters said hurt poor and disadvantaged North Carolinians.
The protests were more subdued this year, with only a few dozen arrests, and a judge threw out some of the rules a legislative commission adopted in May to deal with the protests, ruling they were too broadly written.
Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger declined to comment on the dismissals.
Meredith College political science professor David McLennan said the court rulings and the new rules at the Legislative Building will likely cut down on arrests at future protests, a key Moral Monday attention-getting tactic.
"Some of the members said that their goal was to get arrested," McLennan said. "They lose that tool, but they're an adaptable group that will look for other ways."
But Rev. William Barber, the state NAACP president and one of the leaders of the Moral Monday movement, said arrests were never the intent of the protests.
"We went in to challenge what we believed then, and believe now, are constitutionally inconsistent, morally indefensible and economically insane extremist policies," Barber said in a statement. "Today's decision to dismiss virtually all charges against the messengers of justice sends another message to extremists who would take our state backwards. The Constitution is alive and well. It stands for justice and fair play."