Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Sheriff Deputies Amass at Courthouse as MLK Day Protest Cases Are Continued in Memphis

                        Law Enforcement Provides the Day's Only Court Drama 

Moore Media Images/Gary Moore

Class C misdemeanor cases against seven persons who were arrested at the Valero refinery on MLK Day Jan. 16 were set for preliminary hearings May 2 as law enforcement amassed outside the courtrooms at the Shelby County Criminal Justice Center in downtown Memphis.

About 30 Shelby County Sheriff’s Department deputies -- some in regular uniforms, others in tactical garb and some carrying zip ties -- formed a phalanx near the foot of escalators where the seven cases were divided among four general sessions courtrooms. 

The unusually heavy law enforcement presence apparently was in response to a Facebook post calling for “court solidarity” for those arrested during a protest and citing the date, time and place for the cases.   The Facebook entry, posted by Arkansas Rising, called for any persons showing up in moral support to be “respectful” and to observe proper decorum.  The Facebook site also told defendants, especially out-of-owners, that they need not show up as the cases would be continued.  

There was hardly any threat as only two of the seven defendants appeared, and there were only a handful of citizens who showed up to observe any court proceedings.  The other defendants waived appearance, having been advised by their attorneys that the cases would not be heard today and would be continued.

“We have asked for any police body camera footage that may exist,” said attorney Jason Ballenger, who is representing two of the defendants.  

Various other citizen and independent media videos have been published and used to support three defendants whose cases have been dismissed.  Local TV and print reporters were pushed away on Martin Luther King Day as police blocked Mallory Avenue and Interstate-55 exit 9 in reaction to seven persons who were locked together in concrete-filled barrels at the Valero driveways.  The seven were protesting the 440-mile Diamond Oil Pipeline, which is to run from Cushing, Oklahoma, to the Valero refinery on the banks of the Mississippi River.

Police originally had arrested 12 persons, including one independent journalist and one observer who was live-streaming to Facebook while corporate media had been blocked from the scene.  Of the seven persons who were locked together through barrels, two cases were disposed of when Ruby Montoya and Jessica Reznicek of Iowa pleaded out and paid court costs after being jailed for two nights.  Of the five persons who were not locked together, three cases have been dismissed.  

All were charged with disorderly conduct and obstructing a highway or passageway, and the seven locked into barrels were additionally charged with criminal trespass. All are Class C misdemeanors.  Disorderly conduct and obstructing a passageway are charges typically used when there is no substantial offense or illegal activity and police want to stop a citizen from doing whatever he or she is doing, such as filming or questioning police.  MPD policy and procedures manual specifies that citizens have a First Amendment right to record police and "express criticism" of police. 

Of the remaining defendants, three are from Memphis and others are from Oklahoma and Missouri. 

At a preliminary hearing, the arresting officer typically testifies, and the prosecutor puts on the evidence which must support that the officer had "probable cause" to make the charge.  Defense attorneys use preliminary hearings to discover what evidence or testimony the prosecution has.  Defendants are not required to testify.  

At these or any court appearances there exists the possibility that a case can be disposed of, for example, the judge could dismiss the charges, or the defendant could plead out and pay costs or agree to some community service in lieu of progressing to a full trial.  

Law enforcement and the Shelby County district attorney general appear to have a heightened awareness of these cases, and the DA seems intent on fully prosecuting.  First Amendment cases like those of Memphian Seema Rasoul, who was arrested while standing on a public sidewalk and not blocking any traffic, are typically dismissed upon the first or second court appearance.  Today was Rasoul's second appearance, and her attorney argued with the prosecutor that the case should be dismissed.  

Ultimately, judge Ronald Lucchesi agreed with the prosecutor that the case needed to be "tried upon the facts."  


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