Judge Reconsiders Gag Order in J20 Case
First amendment issues at stake in a hearing to reassess a protective order that prohibits defendants arrested during Inauguration protests to share discovery evidence
BAYNARD WOODS: For The Real News Network, this is Baynard Woods. President Trump’s inauguration may have brought relatively small crowds to the National Mall, but the city was rocked by massive protests. Some protesters in the Black Bloc broke the windows of several multinational corporations. Metropolitan police officers cordoned more than 200 people and placed them under mass arrest. Most of them are now facing eight felony charges including conspiracy to riot, inciting riot, and rioting.
The case involves a massive amount of evidence, including police body cam footage. The judge has ruled this evidence cannot be shared either with the press or with other attorneys, effectively blocking civil suits against the MPD or its individual officers who used a variety of weapons against protesters that day. The judge reconsidered that ruling today.
With us is Elizabeth Lagesse, one of the defendants in the case and a plaintiff in a civil suit that has been filed against the department by the ACLU. Elizabeth was in the courtroom today, so tell us what happened.
E. LAGESSE: Yeah, thanks. Today, the judge, Judge Leibovitz, considered whether or not to vacate the protective order that she recently issued about sharing discovery data with just about anyone that defendants our counsel would want to share it with. That would include witnesses for the defense, that would include anyone helping to prepare the case, anyone trying to prepare civil cases, anyone trying to report on this. Basically, there’s a right of a defendant in a criminal case to share the information that is given to them by the government. The prosecution in this case asked that that basically have a gag order put on it. This was the hearing about the opposition to that.
BAYNARD WOODS: They did that in part citing the fact that many cell phones of the defendants were taken and all of that personal information has become part of the evidence, but as one of the defendants, do you feel protected by this protective order?
E. LAGESSE: Yeah, I definitely don’t. That was actually an issue at today’s hearing. There’s two protective orders: one is for the cell phone data and one is for the data that is mostly police body cams and similar sources of video. To basically tell someone they can’t exercise their First Amendment rights, the government has to show a very clear and compelling for why that has to be. They need to show a governmental reason. They basically admitted that the governmental reason is that they’re trying to protect law enforcement and they’re trying to protect government officials because feeling generous toward the defendants isn’t a governmental reason to abridge someone’s First Amendment rights.
BAYNARD WOODS: At the same time, they’re requesting Facebook data from various defendants related to the case. It seems like they’re asking for more and more information for their prosecution while allowing you, the defense, less and less information to work with in order to defend yourself. Is that right?
E. LAGESSE: Yeah. That’s actually a really good assessment of the situation. They are pulling out all the stops. They just keep asking for more and more information. They’re being more and more intrusive. It’s really ridiculous how far they’re going with everything. They’re just pushing at every limit. Then, at the same time, they’re pushing back on every request for information, every request for clarification. Yeah, it’s not good.
BAYNARD WOODS: The first mass trials are set to start next month. When will you expect to hear from the judge’s ruling about today, if you will be able to share the information that you’re obtaining in discovery or not?
E. LAGESSE: Because of how soon the trials are, they are really trying to speed up the process. The government’s asked to reply by tomorrow, just basically to follow up on some questions that the judge asked in court today. Then the defense is going to have to reply by Friday. Then they’re going to have another hearing, I believe, next Wednesday. If she doesn’t make a ruling in court on Wednesday of next week, she should do so shortly thereafter.
BAYNARD WOODS: Give us a little bit of a timeline of what we can expect as the case goes forward from there, both the criminal case and you’re a plaintiff in the ACLU civil case against the MPD Chief Newsham and several of its individual officers. What are we looking at for the timeline of these cases?
E. LAGESSE: It’s going to be going on for a long time. It’s not expected to be any major developments in the civil case through the end of this year. Right now, they’re just in the really early stages of talking to each other about identifying the defendants and things like that, just like the very first steps in the lawsuit. The next steps of that aren’t even going to be done until the end of November. The criminal cases, as you said, the very first trials are starting November 20th. Then there’s another group after that December 11th, but that would only, at most, be 16 or 17 of about 194 defendants that are still awaiting trial. There are trials scheduled through October of 2018, so these people are going to have waited for their day in court for over a year when they go to trial.
BAYNARD WOODS: Thanks so much for joining us today and filling us in on what happened in the courtroom hearing on the protective order regarding evidence in the J20 case. That is Elizabeth Lagesse, who is a defendant, a J20 defendant, as well as a plaintiff in the ACLU’s case against the MPD. Thanks, Elizabeth.
E. LAGESSE: Thanks.
BAYNARD WOODS: This is Baynard Woods with The Real News Network.