Minneapolis Court Supports Citizens' Right to Protest Foreclosures; Judge Denies Prosecutor's Attempt to Add Additional Trumped-Up Charges

The Occupy movement in Minneapolis reached an important milestone on Monday, July 30, 2012 with the resolution of a case brought against four protesters arrested at a peaceful demonstration on October 20, 2011. Judge Daniel Moreno denied the prosecutor’s attempt to add three additional charges to the original complaint less than two weeks before trial, and prevented the prosecutor from singling out individuals with previous political arrests for harsher treatment. Ultimately, four defendants, Misty Rowan, Katrina Plotz, Ben Egerman, and Peter Leeman agreed to a conviction of one petty misdemeanor each, a non-criminal violation which is basically equivalent to a traffic ticket. Dozens of supporters attended the proceedings in solidarity with the defendants and celebrated the resolution as a victory.

This case and recent arrests of dozens of OccupyHomes MN activists defending the Cruz home in South Minneapolis show that the City of Minneapolis, through the Minneapolis Police Department and City Attorney’s office are attempting to intimidate activists and shut down the Occupy movement with tough tactics and unreasonable charges. The resolution of this case shows that Mayor R.T. Rybak’s efforts to suppress dissent can be defeated with the help of a strong legal defense and solidarity from all who seek to create a more just society.

Background on the case: On October 20, 2011, about a hundred people participated in a demonstration in front of U.S. Bank in downtown Minneapolis to draw attention to the fact that in 2010 alone, over 25,000 Minnesotans lost their homes to foreclosure. Meanwhile, U.S. Bank CEO Richard Davis saw his salary more than double to $18.8 million this year, and U.S. Bancorp reported record profits of $1.3 billion in the 3rd quarter of 2011. Tired of seeing banks refuse to negotiate with homeowners while making record profits, protesters moved into the intersection of 2nd Ave and 6th St. Police blocked and re-routed traffic, which allowed the demonstration to continue.

Eventually, seven people were arrested and charged with violating Minneapolis City Ordinance 385.65 which prohibits “interfering with pedestrian and vehicular traffic.” At the first court appearance in November, the prosecutor, Patrick Marzitelli, offered some defendants the opportunity to plead guilty to a petty misdemeanor, but insisted on charging Misty Rowan and Katrina Plotz with criminal misdemeanors, even though all seven defendants engaged in the same activity on the same day in the same place. The decision to treat some people differently based on past civil disobedience activities was clearly an attempt to silence, intimidate, and deter all citizens from engaging in political dissent.At subsequent court appearances, the prosecutor and his supervisor, Assistant City Attorney Mary Ellen Heng again refused to offer everyone the same deal. Rowan and Plotz, along with Ben Egerman and Peter Leeman declined to accept these terms, and were scheduled to go to trial July 30.

Defense attorneys Jordan Kushner and Andrea Palumbo filed a motion to dismiss the initial charge on the grounds that the city ordinance in question was unconstitutional. In response, Marzitelli added three new misdemeanor charges to the original complaint (unlawful assembly, creating a public nuisance, and disobeying a peace officer).

On July 30, Judge Moreno denied the motion to dismiss the original charge. Kushner then argued that the addition of three new charges was untimely and not based on any new facts in the case. When Kushner asserted that the extra charges seemed designed to punish the defendants for refusing to take previous “deals,” Marzitelli objected, saying, “There is no evidence to suggest that the amended complaint is retaliatory in nature.” His objection was overruled.

Judge Moreno ultimately granted the defense’s request to eliminate the additional charges. He then took the unusual step of allowing Rowan and Plotz the option of a “straight plea.” Under this arrangement, they could each plead guilty to a misdemeanor, but as the judge, he would sentence them to a petty misdemeanor and it would be recorded as such, essentially bypassing the prosecutor’s insistence that they should each be stuck with a misdemeanor. Rowan and Plotz both chose this option. Leeman and Egerman pled guilty to a petty misdemeanor as well.

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