Activists Identify DC Cop Who Infiltrated Bangladesh Sweatshop Protests

Earth First! Newswire

Left: Still photo from a video of the May 15 protest at Children’s Place. Right: Photo from @snufftastic Twitter account.  by Mike Elk / In These Times

Rumors have flown for many years that DC police routinely infiltrate and spy on the frequent protests in the nation’s Capitol. But until now, activists have never been able to identify a specific undercover cop at a protest. Now, after months of piecing together evidence, attorneys Jeffrey Light and Sean Canavan working with United Students Against Sweatshop (USAS) have confirmed that under an assumed name, Metro police officer Nicole Rizzi has participated in USAS protests against companies doing business in Bangladesh who refuse to sign the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh following the death of as many as 1,129 workers in the Rana Plaza factory collapse.

USAS and its lawyers have numerous pieces of evidence placing Rizzi at…

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Jeff Light: “Will work for cupcakes”

Attorney Jeff Light (photo by coolrevolution.net)

During the Occubarn hearing and trial, Judge Wingo took plenty of opportunities to praise defense counsel Jeff Light. Several times she seemed to catch herself and include government prosecutor Sean Farrelly as an afterthought, however accomplished an attorney he may be.

She described Light’s motions as “clearly and concisely argued,” “nicely laid out,” and “very nicely written on a complex issue.” After motions for judgment to acquit, she again commended him. “Thank you for clear, concise arguments,” she said. “I really appreciate the quality of work here.”

Before delivering the verdict, the judge said, “I really appreciate the efforts put forward on both sides, raising and thoroughly investigating the issues.”

Farrelly had to meet an onslaught of motions that Light brought at every opportunity, including motions to dismiss based on constitutional issues, challenges to chain of custody, accusations of destruction of evidence (including destruction of the Barn itself), and challenges to the method of Identifying defendants by photograph–which won the acquittal of one.

Light graduated from Georgetown Law School in 2004 and is now a solo practitioner, doing much pro bono work. This trial is his second trial ever. Affiliated with the National Lawyers Guild, most of his practice is devoted to working with activists as a criminal representative when they have been arrested and their rights violated. He also works on transgender rights and represents groups including the DC Trans Coalition (DCTC).

He currently has fifty cases and no paralegal. “I make the photocopies. When there’s a letter to be mailed, I go to the post office,” he said.

His clients in the OccuBarn case gave him a box of cupcakes–his favorite–in gratitude for his services as their attorney.

OccuBarn trial: Outcome

The OccuVerdict is in: guilty on all counts.

Ten defendants heard the verdict and their sentencing on June 21, the ruling handed down by Judge Elizabeth Wingo after five days of trial–almost twenty hours of motions and testimony–on charges related to a structure erected by Occupy DC in McPherson Park in December, 2011.

All eleven defendants were found guilty of the charge failure to obey in an emergency situation, and one, David Givens, had two additional charges, indecent exposure and disorderly conduct. One defendant had a waiver for his presence that day, and another, Rooj Alwazir, was acquitted last week. Two didn’t appear for trial at all and will have a separate hearing.

The judge prefaced sentencing by saying, “It is clear to me that [the defendants] acted not out of a desire to create havoc, [but out of] a desire to improve the state of the country. They did not have criminal convictions.” She also noted that for the failure to obey charge, community service was not appropriate.

Of the eleven defendants, Judge Wingo distinguished the three who climbed into the rafters of the building from seven who remained on the ground within it in defiance of a police order to vacate. All are required to pay a mandatory $50 assessment to the Victims of Violent Crimes fund.

The seven who remained on the ground within the structure received a $100 fine, suspended.

For the three defendants who took to the rafters and defended it against police the entire day, she took into consideration her assessment that their conduct was “a little more dangerous,” and she believed their “point [as protestors] could have been made another way.” She urged them to “think about the danger posed to themselves and others.” She also imposed $100 fine but did not suspend it.

In addition, one defendant, David Givens, was the last person extricated from the rafters of the OccuBarn, pried off by police officers and delivered into custody by a cherry picker. After ten hours aloft, he declined offers by police to use the porta-potty when they informed him he wouldn’t be able to return to the roof, so he relieved himself. “Urinating in an arc,” the judge said in the findings of fact, “making a display of himself, though not an extreme one.”

Taking into consideration her belief that Givens put Park Police officers “in a fair amount of danger,” she sentenced him to a $150 fine, 90 days suspended, one year unsupervised probation and 24 hours of community service, plus $150 to the Victims of Violent Crime fund.

Upon learning that Givens spent five days in jail when he didn’t identify himself in court, the judge said, “Mr. Givens is committed.” The defendants responded with twinkle fingers, an Occupy signal of solidarity.

Defense counsel Jeff Light was generally pleased by sentencing. “We asked for $1 fine, and got a $0 fine,” he said.

He also thought they were in an advantageous position for appeal. “The judge did a great job of laying out the facts. Findings of fact were great. They’re now and forever the gospel.”

The case will go to appeal, first to an Associate Judge in DC Superior Court, then to the Court of Appeals.

UPDATE: In statement released by his office, Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan said, “We respect the right of Occupy DC participants to communicate their message to the public, but they crossed the line by refusing lawful orders to leave a structure that had been declared unsafe. I commend the work of the prosecutors in our Public Safety Division for securing this conviction.”

Corrections: A previous version of this post incorrectly stated that eight defendants were given a $100 suspended fine, rather than seven. Also, David Givens was charged with disorderly conduct, not urination in public.

OccuBarn trial: Emergency situation

Some facets of the OccuBarn trial go to the heart of First Amendment issues dogging Occupy movement protests. One of those issues is discretionary powers of police–how laws governing them are conceived, and how those powers are used and abused.

Since findings of fact could very likely go against the defendants in the OccuBarn trial, defense counsel Jeff Light has gone for the jugular in attacking the substantive basis of the charges themselves. And, not only is he challenging the constitutionality of the statutes, he’s attacking the situational basis of one charge in particular: “failure to obey order – emergency.” All fourteen defendants face this charge.

Light is calling into question whether the scene at McPherson Park on December 4, 2011 warranted a declaration of emergency by the police, and he furthermore asserts that they exercised discretionary powers at odds with First Amendment rights.

In the motion to dismiss, he cites an appellate court ruling (Washington Mobilization Committee v. Cullinane) which struck down the District police lines regulation (of which this emergency statute is a part) for being overly broad:

It is difficult to conceive of a more pernicious prescription. A police officer is given unfettered discretion to issue any order he thinks reasonable and then is allowed to initiate criminal proceedings against a person who disobeys the order.

The Catch-22 here is obvious, especially to seasoned protestors. As the motion to dismiss points out, an unjustified order to disperse, for example, can lead to arrest for loitering. During trial, Light said, “For the protection of persons and property, the circumstances are so broad that there are no limits on a police officer’s discretion and whether he believes that it’s necessary [to declare an emergency].” Without express guidelines, police may have the power to criminalize harmless conduct.

Prosecutor Sean Farrelly countered that there was no more discretion involved in declaring an emergency than for a police officer to determine whether a crime was being committed, but he agreed that police could declare an emergency whenever they wanted to.

He gave specific rationale for the police decision to declare an emergency situation at McPherson Park: the OccuBarn structure was unsafe, there were hundreds of people in the park, and it was necessary to shut down traffic around the park.

Judge Elizabeth Wingo denied the motion to dismiss, saying, “The entirety of the statute is aimed at giving police officers authority to deal with an emergency.”

The judge didn’t find the defense’s direct challenges to the statute based on over breadth and vagueness persuasive, but going forward the defense strategy clearly will be attacking the rationale for the police’s declaration.

(Photo by coolrevolution.net)

When the police are Anonymous

Mike Isaacson and Jeff Light (Photo by coolrevolution.net)

Two police officers refused to provide names and badge numbers to protestors at the Occupy Our Homes action Monday at the Chase Bank offices on I Street. Fortunately for the protestors, they only had to cross 14th St. to reach the building where they could file a complaint.

The two police officers were wearing jackets clearly marked “MPD” (Metropolitan Police Deparment) but no badges.  They refused to identify themselves when confronted. One was video-taping the protest.

Mike Isaacson filed the complaint along with three witnesses in consultation with Occupy DC counsel Jeff Light.

One of the witnesses, Ryan Lash, explained why he felt identifying the officers and reporting their refusal was important, “It’s an issue of personal safety,” he said, citing incidents of impersonation by police.

Jeff Light agreed. Without identifying information, he said, there’s no way to hold someone accountable. “Police officers often test what they can get away with,” he added.

Judge issues scathing rebuke to prosecution at OccuBarn hearing

In a hearing of a case related to the structure erected by Occupy DC known as the “OccuBarn,” a DC Superior Court Judge dealt scathing criticism to the prosecution for failing to meet deadlines for filing motions. Calling their behavior “a gross dereliction of duty” and “lame,” Judge Elizabeth Wingo considered dismissing the case and even the unusual measure of conceding the case on Constitutional grounds. She’s now weighing whether to levy sanctions against them.

Even before addressing the preliminary issue of potential conflicts of interest arising from counsel Jeff Light’s representation of all defendants in the case, Judge Wingo immediately took the opportunity to announce her displeasure with the prosecution’s lapse. To Peter Saba, the attorney standing in for Assistant Attorney General Sean Farrelly, she said, “I realize this is not your case, so you’re somewhat a lamb to the slaughter.”

The OccuBarn was a 15-foot high modular wooden structure erected by Occupy DC at McPherson Park on December 4, 2011. While an emergency General Assembly debated whether to comply with the Park Police order to disassemble the OccuBarn, police went ahead and cordoned off the structure. Several individuals engaged in autonomous action, stationing themselves inside it, while six climbed into the rafters, remaining there for a day-long stand-off with police until the final hold-out was plucked from the roof by a cherry-picker ten hours later.

Occupy DC attorney Jeff Light, who is representing the 14 defendants charged with low-level criminal offenses, filed a motion to dismiss on March 26 and a motion to concede on May 22. The prosecution’s deadline to respond to the motion to dismiss was April 9, which it missed. After the judge inquired twice, they indicated their intention to file in two weeks, a response which Judge Wingo described as “woefully inadequate.” She then issued an order requiring the government to file a motion by May 18, but, she noted, they didn’t even file a motion to “late file.”

As of Tuesday’s hearing, the prosecution still had not complied with the judge’s order, only two weeks before the trial scheduled for June 13. Judge Wingo said it was “the first time she had considered treating a motion as conceded.”

Without raising her voice but in an indignant tone, she proceeded to dress down the prosecution. “Was [Assistant Attorney General] Mr. Farrelly on bedrest for six weeks? What’s the explanation here?” she asked. She also reminded them, “This is not a run-of-the-mill case, [and] it’s going to take extreme organization.” In the most telling moment of exasperation, she said, “It appears to me that the government’s conduct here is so…lame.”

In contrast, she praised the defense, calling Jeff Light’s motion “clearly and concisely argued,” “nicely laid out,” and “very nicely written on a complex issue.” In considering sanctions on the prosecution, she consulted Light, asking him if he knew what measures would be appropriate in these cases.

Peter Saba, the prosecuting attorney, lobbied for a continuance as a sanction, but the judge thought that postponing trial would only penalize the defendants. “You’re saying, ‘our bad,'” she said to him. As he took the tongue-lashing, Saba sometimes revealed a lack of preparation for the proceedings, unaware of the contents of the motions and unwilling to commit to deadlines. He texted his office as the judge spoke to see if they could meet the Wednesday deadline she imposed. “Let me be clear,” she said. “It needs to be filed tomorrow at the latest.”

Still, she voiced her reluctance to concede the case on Constitutional grounds and declined to dismiss the case.

Jubilant defendants greeted counsel Jeff Light outside the courtroom with twinkle fingers, an Occupy signal of approval. Kelly Mears said, “I hope to see more of this… One side of this case cares more about this. This is not just a rote defense, but it is a rote prosecution.”

Caty McClure said she was “glad the judge is calling them out. It’s respect for the process.” But at the same time she said she felt “super disrespected” by the prosecution. Sophie Vick agreed. “My time was wasted,” she said. “I wanted to throw up my hands and storm out.”

Jeff Light however had a positive reaction. “Ignoring deadlines isn’t unusual,” he said. “I deal with this situation all the time. Government entities often don’t follow the rules.” And, he added, “Some judges are more tolerant than others. Judge Wingo took the appropriate tone.”

The prosecution is required to file a response to the motion to dismiss by May 30 and a response to the Bill of Particulars by June 5. It also must turn over additional information to the defense by June 1. The trial is scheduled for June 13-14 at DC Superior Court.

(Photo by cool revolution.net)

UPDATE: All the defendants are charged with “Failure to Obey – Emergency.” One defendant, David Givens, has two additional charges: “lewd, indecent or obscene acts” and disorderly conduct.

UPDATE 5/30/12: Ted Gest, Public Information Officer of the DC Attorney General’s Office, says that Assistant Attorney General Sean Farrelly has filed a response to the motion to dismiss in the case, meeting today’s deadline.