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Mar-17-2012 03:36printcomments

PCJF Opposes Blatantly Unconstitutional Anti-Protest Law

Calls it an effort to "subvert the First Amendment Rights and Police Standards Act" of 2004.

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(WASHINGTON DC) - Opposing Bill 19-645: Criminal Code Amendments Act of 2012 that targets demonstrators and the Occupy movement in Washington, D.C., Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, Executive Director of the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund is testified before the D.C. Council Friday. Her full testimony is available here. Excerpts include:

"The PCJF opposes the legislation styled as the Criminal Code Amendments Act of 2012. It sets back the public policy of the District and this Council's own actions in support of cherished fundamental constitutional rights.

It would be more accurate were it entitled the Anti-Occupy, Anti-Free Speech Amendment Act. While it may garner favor with the police, and moreover the business interests that have lobbied the DC government to shut down the Occupy movement in DC and seek to prevent its regrowth in the Spring, it is a disservice to this Council’s demonstrated commitment to free speech in the Nation’s Capital."

Opposing the Amendment to D.C. Code §22-1307(a), which criminalizes the "crowding" of a park, her testimony states:

The proposed revision to D.C. Code Section 22-1307 which notably is entitled “Blocking passage” -- actually purports to make it unlawful for a person to “crowd, obstruct or incommode the use of any . . . park or reservation.” It authorizes any law enforcement officer to arrest, as a misdemeanor offense with a potential jail term of ninety days, any person who crowds a park and continues to crowd a park after being directed by any law enforcement officer to stop such park crowding.

Unlike sidewalks or roadways, the purpose of parks is not passage. A park is not a passageway, it is a gathering place, both for recreation and for First Amendment protected assemblies. This law seeks to criminalize the proper use and purpose of a park.

But does anyone here believe this law will be enforced against the hundreds of tourists who may “crowd” into any one of the District’s parks during this beautiful Spring season? I don’t think so. The only people who will be targeted by this will be those who engage in the very same assembly, but do so with a political purpose, with a political message, in the exercise of cherished free speech rights.

Opposing the Amendment to D.C. Code §22-1321(c), Criminalizing Loud or Disturbing Conduct in a Public Building, her testimony states:

This is a hopelessly vague provision that is again targeted at protestors, specifically those who seek to redress grievances with their government and representatives. Furthermore, "abusive" language is not illegal. What exactly is disruptive or disturbing conduct - approaching your councilmember in the hallway and telling him or her you oppose repressive legislation? Should a person be arrested for that? The echo of a group of working people assembled to challenge an anti-labor law would that be a noisy protest subject to arrest in the Wilson Building perhaps?

Does this Council really believe it needs the threat and reality of ninety day jail sentences to protect itself from loud constituents? The message this Council should be sending to the people of the District of Columbia is that they are welcome in the Wilson Building, that what is waiting is a receptive legislature, not a set of handcuffs. Even members of this Council have engaged in spirited debate that has spilled over into vocal and loud and some might say abusive conduct. Are members of the Council now going to have each other arrested?

Opposing the Amendment to D.C. Code §22-1307(b), Area Ban and Bar, the testimony states:

A person enters the Wilson Building and engages in demonstration activity in a prohibited area, is ordered to cease and desist, and does desist. The police may order that person to leave the area and not return to the Wilson Building. That resident may not remain in or return to the Wilson Building to go to his or her councilmember’s office to peaceably and lawfully speak to her representative without the risk of ninety days in jail. This is plainly unconstitutional.

More to the point, I would note that the Mayor of this city and six councilmembers were arrested for blocking a passageway, specifically a street, i.e. demonstrating in an area where demonstrations are prohibited, in a protest against Congress’ intrusion onto what should be the sovereign affairs of the District. Should they now be banned from ever returning to that area which happens to be the U.S. Capitol? Of course not.

Concluding:

This legislation affords the police unfettered discretion to arrest those who engage in protest. And the record shows that the MPD will abuse such authority and the District’s taxpayers will pay the price. The District of Columbia has paid out over $20 million in settlements and judgments over the past few years for the unconstitutional misconduct and false arrests of protestors by the Metropolitan Police Department.

Providing the police with undue discretion and vaguely worded legal authority has never advanced civil rights and civil liberties. Criminalizing public assemblage in our public parks is a negation of democracy. We urge the Council to reject this legislation.

__________________________________

The Partnership for Civil Justice Fund (PCJF) is a not-for-profit constitutional rights legal and educational organization which, among other things, seeks to ensure constitutional accountability within police practices and government transparency in operations. The PCJF filed the class action suit challenging the NYPD's October 1 mass arrest of more than 700 protestors on the Brooklyn Bridge. It has brought class action cases in which more than 1,000 persons were falsely arrested during protests in Washington, D.C., resulting in settlements totaling $22 million and major changes in police practices. The PCJF previously brought the successful litigation in New York challenging the 2004 ban on protests in the Great Lawn of Central Park. It is counsel with the National Lawyers Guild in Oakland, CA challenging police mass arrest tactics. It won a unanimous ruling at the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals finding the MPD’s unprecedented military-style police checkpoint program unconstitutional. The PCJF previously uncovered and disclosed that the D.C. police employed an unlawful domestic spying and agent provocateur program in which officers were sent on long-term assignments posing as political activists and infiltrated lawful and peaceful groups. For more information go to: www.JusticeOnline.org.





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