Protests have sprung across the United States in response to the death of George Floyd while in Minneapolis Police custody. Most of these protests have been peaceful, but a few have been marred by rioting and looting.
This has resulted in increased police presence and in some cases mass arrests — even when protests are peaceful. Some of those arrested will end up facing charges, though many have been released en masse by judges essentially saying the police had no right to arrest them in the first place.
In short, there’s a lot of confusion about what is legally allowed on both sides. That’s why we decided to write this post about the possibility of someone facing federal charges for protesting.
First, let’s address that million-dollar question with a simple answer: most protestors will not have to deal with federal charges. After all, protesting is protected in the bill of rights in the first amendment.
However, for people who are found to have committed crimes by rioting and looting, severe consequences may be result if they are convicted.
We’re going to cover some of the different crimes commonly committed during protests and provide examples of what kinds of penalties people may face. We’ll also look at exactly when the federal government may become interested in individuals committing crimes at protests and rallies.
What Are Some Common Crimes Committed During Protests?
Reports have surfaced about individuals being arrested at the protests for a variety of crimes ranging from assault and hit and runs to arson, criminal mischief, and more. Many of these crimes stem from rioting and looting taking place during the protests.
Some stories of specific crimes include:
Individuals Making Explosive Devices
There have been numerous stories of individuals making explosive devices, primarily in the form of Molotov cocktails. These explosives have been used for a variety of crimes, including setting cop cars on fire and burning down buildings.
In the state of Texas, one Austin man was arrested after video footage showed him standing behind a porta toilet creating one such explosive device. One of the more infamous cases to come out of these riots involves two lawyers in New York who are accused of throwing Molotov cocktails at police vehicles. These two lawyers now face life in prison, a testament that no one is above the law.
It is important to note that in both of these cases, the individuals are considered innocent until proven guilty. This means they must be tried in front of a jury of their peers and cannot be convicted unless the prosecution is able to prove their guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
Individuals Committing Looting
This has arguably been the most common crime committed during these protests. Businesses around the country have been broken into and vandalized, from large establishments such as Target down to small businesses.
Looting is a serious crime and, depending on the value of the merchandise stolen, can carry hefty fines and jail time. These crimes can range from misdemeanors all the way up to felonies with long prison sentences and expensive fines.
Individuals Committing Assault
There have been numerous stories coming out about people assaulting police officers and other protestors. Also important to note: there have also been officers fired or charged with assault or the use of excessive force due to the way they dealt with people involved in or sometimes even against individuals who were just around the protests.
These charges can be severe depending on factors such as how seriously the victim was injured.
When Do Federal Authorities Get Involved?
There are a few different reasons why federal authorities might get involved in a case. During these protests, the two most common reasons have been when individuals have crossed state lines to commit crimes and when federal property has been destroyed.
Federal charges are serious and carry the possibility of up to life in prison in a federal prison facility. The governor of Texas has made it known that those who commit these crimes will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law and that the state and city authorities are cooperating with federal officials.
The best thing to do is avoid situations that become violent. The right to protest is guaranteed under the First Amendment of the Constitution. If you decide to engage in protests, be aware of your surroundings and avoid any potentially dangerous or compromising situations.