Recently, in response to the horrific killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, there have been protests in major cities across the United States. An upstate woman and two New York attorneys were arrested and charged in federal court with crimes relating to their alleged throwing of Molotov cocktails at police vehicles during the protests in Brooklyn. However, most protestors arrested in New York City are charged with Desk Appearance Tickets in state court, and are typically charged with some combination of the following crimes: Obstructing Governmental Administration in the Second Degree (Penal Law 195.05, a Class A misdemeanor), Assault in the Second Degree (Penal Law 120.05, felony assault on a police officer, a class D felony), Reckless Endangerment in the Second Degree (Penal Law 120.20, a Class A misdemeanor), Resisting Arrest (Penal Law 205.30, a class A misdemeanor), or Disorderly Conduct (Penal Law 240.20, a violation). (Note: the charge(s) listed on the Desk Appearance Ticket are not necessarily the same as the charges that will appear in court on the actual criminal complaint – in fact, the number of charges usually increases from the Desk Appearance Ticket to the actual court complaint).
Oftentimes, in these cases in which no one was injured, a protester-defendant could – with the help of an experienced attorney – successfully negotiate a plea bargain whereby the protester will have no criminal record and spend no time in jail (such as an “adjournment in contemplation of dismissal or a violation like Disorderly Conduct). In cases involving Desk Appearance Tickets, such negotiations may even be possible prior to the return date (i.e. the first court appearance). However, for reasons relating to principle, many protester-defendants refuse to accept any such deal, preferring to demand dismissal or a trial where their voices can be heard by a jury. Such an attitude is certainly understandable but it does tend to increase the risk of a negative result (such as a permanent criminal record).
Unfortunately, some protests escalate into confrontations with police officers. In those cases, charges like Assault in the Second Degree can sometimes be levied against arrested protesters alleged to have injured police officers. That charge is a serious felony that can carry real jail time, and should not be treated lightly at all. The best defense in these cases is often to argue that the defendant did not act unreasonably, and that any injuries to the police officer were sustained on account of his/her own aggressive or improper actions. In today’s current climate, that argument can have real traction with some jurors.
Thankfully, nowadays many protesters have video footage of their arrests, or their behavior just prior to being arrested. Oftentimes, this footage can be helpful to their defenses. In those cases, it may make sense for their attorneys to share the footage with prosecutors in the hopes of securing outright dismissals. Of course, an outright dismissal of an arrest charge can open the door to a lawsuit for wrongful arrest against the City.
Sometimes people attempt to intervene during an arrest of a protester by trying to prevent the police officer from apprehending someone else. In these cases, the intervenors typically are charged with Obstructing Government Administration or Resisting Arrest, misdemeanors. A person being unlawfully arrested can argue that they are not guilty of Resisting Arrest because the arrest was unlawful or unauthorized under the circumstances, and an intervenor may also be able to successfully argue the same thing.
Generally speaking, defendants (and defense attorneys) prefer some anonymity with respect to their cases, and prefer to try their cases discretely in the courtroom. However, for those defendants seeking trials by jury, attorneys should consider trying to garner public sympathy and/or publicity for the client’s case before the trial. After all, these cases frequently depend less on the facts presented at trial so much as they do upon the attitudes of the fact-finders (i.e. judges or juries) deciding the case.
If you or a loved one have been arrested or given a Desk Appearance Ticket in New York City for protesting, you should strongly consider contacting Matthew Galluzzo. He is an experienced criminal defense attorney and former Manhattan state prosecutor. He is also a civil rights attorney who has successfully sued members of the NYPD for false arrest and police brutality.