July 20, 2007 in City

Trespassing ruling could muddle case against protesters

By The Spokesman-Review
 

An anti-war demonstrator’s trespassing conviction was overturned this week, wiping out a jury verdict for a 2006 protest at a military office and possibly causing problems for the city’s cases against 16 demonstrators arrested in Riverfront Park on July 4.

Spokane County Superior Court Judge Jerome Leveque on Wednesday reversed the November conviction of Jim Sheehan for refusing to leave a Washington National Guard recruiting station on North Division Street. The city failed to provide enough evidence to prove that Sheehan, who was in part of the office open to the public, was there unlawfully, Leveque said.

Whether that will end the case of the recruiting station protest is unclear. Deputy Prosecutor Michelle Szambelan said the city is waiting to study a final written order before deciding whether to appeal to the next level of courts.

City Prosecutor Howard Delaney could not be reached Thursday on whether the ruling in the Sheehan case would affect the July 4 trespass cases. John Clark, one of the defense attorneys representing July 4 protesters, said he was unfamiliar with the recruiting office case and doesn’t know if it will have any connection to the park cases.

Defense attorneys and prosecutors have had some “preliminary discussions” about dismissing charges from the park arrests, Clark said, but no agreements have been reached.

“Right now we’re trying to turn down the rhetoric level on both sides,” Clark said.

Sheehan, who is an attorney, and Breann Beggs, who represented him in the appeal, said the city’s loss in the recruiting station case could make it difficult for the city to win trespassing convictions against the 16 protesters charged with misdemeanors in the July 4 park arrests.

Some aspects of the cases are very similar, Beggs said.

Sheehan and other anti-war demonstrators were in a public part of the Guard offices, and the July 4 demonstrators were in a public park. A park is arguably more public, because courts have ruled it is a traditional forum for free speech, Beggs said.

Neither group was doing anything destructive, although both were saying things that people around them thought were inappropriate – the anti-war demonstrators wanted guardsmen to call the governor and ask her to bring state troops home from Iraq; the July 4 demonstrators were criticizing police and sitting on a large American flag they were using as a picnic blanket.

The Guard has a lease on the North Division building and guardsmen said the protesters were disrupting a place of business. Police have said the July 4 protesters were in part of the park that was being leased by Clear Channel Communications, a national company that owns several local radio stations, for its Neighbor Days performances. Police reports say Clear Channel employees told officers the demonstrators were blocking access to their stage and causing them to delay their scheduled shows.

Police told the anti-war protesters to leave the Guard offices and arrested those who did not. Police read a dispersal order to the July 4 demonstrators to leave the park after arresting one of them for allegedly assaulting an officer; they arrested some of those who failed to leave.

“Whether police had a right to order people to leave a public place is a question,” Sheehan said of the July 4 protests. Neither he nor Beggs represents any of those protesters, but they have been contacted by defense attorneys who do.

Earlier this week, Spokane Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick told the City Council’s Public Safety Committee that officers had been told by other people in the park on July 4 that they were so upset about the protesters’ behavior – which they said included foul language, putting up stickers that said “Kill a Cop” and sitting on an American flag – that they were going to “take matters into their own hand.”

The department’s tactical team ordered protesters to disperse “to prevent the environment from getting more agitated,” Kirkpatrick said.

Sheehan said, however, that the people threatening to take matters into their own hands seemed to be threatening to assault the demonstrators. If a judge were to rule that sitting on the flag in a park is protected speech – and the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that burning a flag is constitutionally protected free speech – then the bystanders would have no right to threaten the demonstrators. Police would have an obligation to protect protesters from unlawful threats, he said.


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