Today in Little Rock (LR) in the most unlikely of all possible courtrooms (more on that later) a very important constitutional battle was fought concerning the rights of citizens to peacefully assemble in a public place, on public property, and exercise freedom of speech without needing a permit.
The merits of the case of The City of Little Rock vs. Greg Deckelman and Kaitlin Lott, surrounds the fact that the ordinance does not list a specific number of citizens so as to know when you need a permit. Like say 10 or 20. Numbers had ranged from different interpretations of 10 to 25 during research on the matter by several citizens. Yes, after a certain number, traffic considerations, depending on where an assembly is held, certainly come into play. In this case 2 people were ticketed for unlawful public assembly in a parking lot owned by the city on a Sunday night at approximately 8:30 p.m. Really? Yes really!
Background as to the exact story of what happened that night back in October, can be found in a post here
As to how the case wound up taking 6 months to go to trial, well that’s another story. First was plea and arraignment. Then first trial date set. Upon arrival at that date, the prosecution stated that the case was in the wrong court and that Judge Lightle’s court did not have jurisdiction over the matter. That was quite the surprise since the judge tries cases every day over criminal matters from LR. It was decided to move the case to environmental court in LR. That’s right. The same court you go to if you fail to mow your lawn or park your car or truck in your yard, etc. The judge is Mark Leverett.
Fast-forward to today. Trial set for 1:30 p.m. and all parties arrive. The prosecution offers the standard, “if they stay out of trouble for 6 months we’ll drop all charges”. The deal is turned down and the defense attorney David Couch, tells the prosecutor the defendants want a trial instead. Court is recessed till 2:00 p.m. The defendants are now left wondering but hoping, that there will be a trial, so the ordinance can be changed. The city has been kicking this can down the road way way to long.
As almost 2 p.m. comes around the defendants Deckelman and Lott re-enter the courtroom and also in the courtroom come three (3) LR police officers familiar to the defendants. Promptly at 2 p.m., the judge re-enters the courtroom. The familiar “All rise” is heard and the first OLR trial is only moments away from the start.
Everyone is sworn-in for possible testimony and the trial begins. BTW, no opening arguments. The first witness is called. The officer who arrested Mr. Deckelman. He testified that he was instructed by the Sgt. on scene to issue a citation to Mr Deckelman after much discussion had gone on, quite cordially, between Mr. Deckelman and the Sgt. and Miss Lott. The officer also testified that were a total of 7 people, that he remembered, being on the parking lot, including some children. On cross examination from the defense, the officer was ask how many people in his judgement constituted a “public assembly”? His answer was two (2). This answer, to the same question that was asked of all of the testifying policemen, was the same, two (2).
The other arresting officer took the stand and pretty much the same testimony was heard. But when it came time for the Sgt. to testify, things would be different. Under cross examination, the Sgt. said that under the current ordinance, a birthday party held in a public park would fall under this ordinance and an assembly permit would be required.Now this is obviously said in the context of prior testimony, saying that two or more people gathered in a public space, with prior planning of the event, i.e. protest, birthday party in a public park, couple walking down the sidewalk, etc., etc., these people need a permit.
Each officer said that they deferred to the Sgt. on the night in question about the ordinance, and the Sgt. deferred to his boss a Lieutenant, and that he understood it went all the way to a Captain for a decision as to whether a charge would be levied against Mr. Deckelman and Ms. Lott.
Mr. Deckelman took the stand and testified to the events of the evening, making the point that he did not think a permit was required due to his being told the threshold for needing a permit was 25 persons, and his knowledge of permitting issues he had already gone through with the city concerning other permits OLR had obtained in the past from the city. He also testified that the protest was to only take place overnight with a small group of protesters numbering somewhere from about 10 to 15 people from OLR who had only planned about one (1) week ahead of time for the protest.
Closing statements came next, and the defense made the overall points of; 1) the ordinance has no number attached as to what amount of citizens makes up a “public assembly”; 2) the arbitrary enforcement possibilities of this ordinance because of that make it unconstitutional.
The prosecution disagreed with this and the judge spoke up at this point saying that he was bothered by the fact that an individual officer decides this and that how is the citizen supposed to know if they are violating the law or not and facing possible arrest.
The judge, obviously troubled by the testimony heard, said he was taking the case under advisement, and the attorneys would supply further briefs and cases to help in his decision. The decision is expected in about one week.