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Defendants Facing Prosecution In Federal Court Are Challenging Use Of “Civil Disorder” Statute

Some defendants being prosecuted in Federal Court for protester activity are facing charges under the Federal “civil disorder” statute.

This law has rarely been relied upon for prosecutions, and some defense attorneys are filing legal challenges.

Following the Portland protests that the Federal authorities vigorously opposed last year, over a dozen protesters are being prosecuted under the “civil disorder” law.

These charges are extremely serious and can ultimately lead to very harsh sentencing of up to five years, fines as much as a quarter million dollars, vastly more severe than the usual penalties for conduct such as obstructing or failing to cooperate with law enforcement.

In 1968, the “civil disorder” law was enacted out of an explicit desire to suppress civil unrest arising from social justice activity. However, despite the seriousness of this charge, the statute has rarely been enforced.

Defense attorneys are now filing motions to dismiss prosecution of protesters accused of this Federal crime, urging that the legislative purpose of the law was to suppress dissent. Attorneys defending protesters seek to vindicate the First Amendment rights of their clients to express dissent, to peaceably assemble and to petition the government for redress of grievances.

It can be hoped that, under the Biden Administration, once a new Attorney General takes office and a new US Attorney is appointed to oversee prosecutions, a less severe attitude toward civil rights protesters may soon replace the very harsh policies adopted under Trump.

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