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When Protesting Turns into a Crime

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The rally in Charlottesville has captured national headlines recently, particularly because it ended with three people killed and some 34 injured. Americans have long-enjoyed free speech rights and the right to assemble.

But when does it turn into something more; i.e. something that could be construed as hate crime, or other, even more violent crimes?

Unlawful Assembly & Violent Crimes

Police have the power to declare something to be an unlawful assembly, as well as make arrests for assault and battery and disorderly conduct; sometimes common charges associated with protests that law enforcement might claim have gotten out of control.

In the Charlottesville rally, what was supposed to be a demonstration quickly exploded into taunting, shoving, and brawling, including one person driving his car into the counter-protest crowd, resulting in a fatality and one man arrested and charged with second-degree murder, three counts of malicious wounding, and failing to stop at the scene of a crash that resulted in death. Some are even calling for him to be prosecuted for committing an act of domestic terrorism. Charlottesville declared a state of emergency once the injuries started to pile up, citing the imminent threat of civil disturbance, unrest, potential injury to persons and destruction of public and personal property.

Still, not every instance of protesting justifiably ends in being arrested for disorderly conduct: Arresting protesters for disorderly conduct when law enforcement becomes annoyed or feels that someone is causing a nuisance is fairly typical. These charges—like any other criminal charge—can affect your record and your future.

Hate Crimes

Potential hate crimes too can be a concern in association with rallies like these. The Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 created a new federal criminal law which criminalizes willfully causing bodily injury or attempting to do so when the crime was committed because of the actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability (and, due to the limits on the federal government’s jurisdiction, the crime must also have affected interstate or foreign commerce or occurred within federal special maritime and territorial jurisdiction). States like New York and others also have their own state hate crime laws which do not mandate a link to commerce.

Still, drawing the line between hate crime and free speech can be challenging for many, including the courts and prosecutors. Courts have historically drawn the line at comments intended as threats and/or those intended to incite lawlessness.

Experienced Criminal Defense Attorneys Serving New York & New Jersey

If you are being investigated for an act that could be construed as a hate or violent crime, or if you are facing criminal charges as a result of any political activity, it is important that you speak with an experienced criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. It is crucial that you are familiar with your First Amendment rights, and where the line is drawn in terms of your rights and criminal activity. Contact us at the office of Phillip J. Murphy today for a free consultation and additional information.

Resources:

nytimes.com/2017/08/12/us/charlottesville-protest-white-nationalist.html

pbs.org/newshour/rundown/how-federal-law-draws-a-line-between-free-speech-and-hate-crimes/

weny.com/story/36132436/how-congress-has-dropped-ball-on-domestic-terror

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