Moral Monday cases confuse Wake courts

November 12, 2013 

Some Republican legislators treated Moral Monday protesters as if they were unruly college students out demonstrating against Saturday classes. In other words, they didn’t take the protests seriously, or they dismissed the protesters themselves, or they ignored the scene of a couple of thousand people on the grounds of the Legislative Building and the office building out back.

But after 924 arrests, many of them involving professional people, retired citizens, earnest and sincere groups worried about the legislative havoc rendered by Republicans, the task of bringing the cases of protesters to an end has fallen to overburdened Wake County courts and prosecutors.

And it’s a confusing situation, to put it mildly. District Attorney Colon Willoughby, who at one point suggested State Capitol Police issue citations rather than haul protesters into jail (he was right), offered Moral Monday protesters a fair plea deal: 25 hours of community service and $180 in court costs in exchange for dismissal. But most protesters, in an attempt to bring attention to their cause, have opted for trials, which begin at the District Court level but can wind up in Superior Court on appeal.

They’re carrying out, in their view, the spirit of civil disobedience, which demands accepting the legal consequences of protest that in some way breaks the law. In this case, trespassing law.

But these prosecutions seem to raise legitimate questions. All those arrested went quietly. They didn’t seem to impede the business of the legislature (they did stand near the doors of legislative chambers) and they cooperated with authorities. And they were in their own building.

Those factors should have merited some special considerations.

Now, as the cases come to trial, there are instances where persons charged with exactly the same crimes under exactly the same circumstances in front of the same judges are getting different outcomes. To the average citizen, that doesn’t make a lot of sense. And a story in Friday’s News & Observer also reported that judges in these cases seem agitated by the various arguments put before them.

The more cases come to trial, with different outcomes and penalties, the wiser Willoughby’s suggestion about citations seems.

And the political undercurrents complicate matters. GOP lawmakers thought the protests would be underwhelming and would fade quickly. Instead, more and more protesters appeared, along with more and more supporters who didn’t get arrested. That was a slap in the face to Republicans who apparently expected unanimous approval of their cuts to Medicaid, unemployment, public education and worthwhile social programs.

Gov. McCrory could make this really interesting, by pardoning all protesters who are convicted. Or what if a judge ruled that it’s impossible under the federal or state Constitution for citizens to be trespassing if they’re in a public structure, assuming they are not disrupting proceedings?

One thing protesters are disrupting is the timely processing of court cases. One defense lawyer made a good point in that regard: The system is geared toward an assumption that most people are going to plead guilty. When they don’t, minor mayhem results.

That’s one more lesson from Moral Mondays.

Lawmakers, judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys would do well to confer on how best to handle these protests in the future, because if Republicans continue their extremist, slash-and-burn approach to legislating, more protests are sure to come when they reconvene next year.

There is nothing wrong with protest. It’s a long-standing tradition in this country. And yes, Republicans were elected and have the mandate, they believe, to govern as they wish. These two groups should be able to coexist without either the courts or the government being thrown into confusion.

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