A judge in Washington, DC, on Thursday denied requests to dismiss the criminal cases against nearly 200 people charged with rioting in downtown Washington on President Donald Trump's inauguration day.
The defendants had raised a series of legal arguments against the indictment, including that it lacked specificity and that the DC rioting laws failed to account for people who were arrested for engaging in political speech protected by the First Amendment.
District of Columbia Superior Court Judge Lynn Leibovitz, who heard arguments in July, issued an order Thursday denying all the motions to dismiss. The defendants are set to be tried in groups at separate times, with the first trial date scheduled for late November. Other trials are scheduled throughout 2018.
Numerous lawyers were involved in filing and arguing the motions to dismiss the indictment. One of the defense lawyers involved, Jason Flores-Williams, said he was looking ahead to the trials.
"It provides us with the opportunity to take these important issues to the jury, which, thankfully, is the way our democratic legal system was designed," Flores-Williams said. Other defense lawyers did not immediately return requests for comment, and a spokesman for the US attorney's office in Washington declined to comment on the new order.
Police arrested 234 people during demonstrations in Washington on Jan. 20 that at times turned violent, with some individuals breaking store and car windows. There was more than $100,000 in property damage, according to court filings.
There are 194 cases pending; 19 defendants have pleaded guilty so far. The defendants all face felony rioting and property destruction charges, and some face additional charges.
The defendants who challenged the indictment argued that it failed to specifically allege which acts of rioting each of the defendants allegedly engaged in. The charging document listed all of the defendants as a group, and detailed a series of incidents — such as the breaking of store windows — that were part of the alleged rioting. Leibovitz said that was enough for the case to move forward.
She agreed with the government that some of the defendants' arguments — for instance, that the indictment didn't include sufficient allegations of criminal activity to overcome claims that defendants were engaging in First Amendment-protected activity — involved issues that should be addressed at trial.
She disagreed that the rioting law couldn't apply to activity that arose from political demonstrations.
"It is well settled that persons who may intend political protest, but who become violent or who willfully incite violence or other conduct that creates a grave risk of injury to property and persons in the course of the protest, are not shielded from prosecution," the judge wrote.
Some of the defendants have said that they were participating in nonviolent, protected speech on Inauguration Day when they were arrested. Leibovitz rejected arguments that the sections of the DC anti-rioting law that the defendants were charged under were unconstitutionally vague because they didn't account for a possible intrusion on a person's First Amendment rights.
Although rioting, as defined under DC law, might involve speech activity, that did not mean that the law was unconstitutional, the judge wrote. The sections of the rioting statute at issue were about whether a defendant knowingly aided or encouraged "tumultuous and violent conduct that creates a grave danger to property or persons," the judge wrote. Citing a 1969 court opinion that addressed similar issues stemming from riots in DC after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., she said that the DC law was limited to conduct "unprotected by the First Amendment."
Leibovitz also denied a request from defendants that the government be required to turn over the instructions that it gave to the grand jury that returned the indictment.
Zoe Tillman is a legal reporter with BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
Contact Zoe Tillman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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