The First Amendment right to protest the government ends when you use a bolt cutter to breach a security fence and enter a restricted area, a federal judge told six people he found guilty Wednesday for their actions during a chaotic protest outside last summer's Democratic National Convention in South Philadelphia.
"A fence is a fence is a fence," Senior U.S. District Judge Michael J. Baylson told the six out-of-towners after finding each guilty of trespassing on restricted federal grounds, a misdemeanor. "As a matter of common sense," said the judge, "when an adult sees a fence, it is clear that is a restriction."
In a sea of hundreds of protesters, one of the six defendants, Travis Martin, 29, of Houston, used the bolt cutter to pierce a hole in an 8-foot chain-link security fence around 10:45 p.m. July 27 in Franklin D. Roosevelt Park near Broad Street and Pattison Avenue, authorities said. Martin and his codefendants then entered through the hole and were quickly arrested by Philadelphia police, according to evidence presented in the three-day nonjury trial.
That was the night when President Barack Obama addressed thousands of convention delegates and dignitaries in the Wells Fargo Center, more than a quarter-mile from the designated protest area.
"They were all together, they conspired to breach the fence. … Their entire conduct that evening is captured on video," Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Arbittier Williams said in her closing argument, referring to Fox29 footage replayed during the trial. She argued that the defendants created an environment that could have endangered the president and others.
Although he acknowledged the defendants' constitutional right to protest and sympathized with their displeasure at being kept at arm's length from the convention arena, Baylson agreed with Williams that they literally crossed a line when they breached the fence. "Basically, I have to conclude that the defendants decided to take the law into their own hands," he said. "The president of the United States deserves protection."
Baylson fined five of the defendants $500, which must be paid in 30 days: Lincoln Bohn, 25, of Montecito, Calif; Jacob Van Buskirk, 24, of Tacoma, Wash.; Dan Nguyen, 19, of Gaithersburg, Md.; and Natalie Frazer, 27, and Megan Munk, 28, of Forks, Wash.
The judge deferred sentencing Martin until Sept. 28, saying he needed more time to decide Martin's fate because he had wielded the bolt cutter. The maximum sentence for entering a restricted federal area is five years in prison and a $100,000 fine, but Baylson said he might not send Martin to prison.
Acting U.S. Attorney Louis D. Lappen said federal prosecutors were "pleased with today's convictions and the resulting sentences. The actions that brought these protesters into court today as defendants were not about exercising their First Amendment rights during the Democratic National Convention but infringing on the rights of others."
Lappen made reference to the big news story of the day Wednesday, saying that his office was "committed to the safety and security of the public and of our public officials. Sadly, today's result and security concerns are underscored by the tragic events of this morning's shooting in a Virginia park targeting members of Congress."
Defense attorneys had argued that the six DNC demonstrators should be found not guilty because they had no way of knowing that the parkland they entered had been restricted due to the convention, and because the city had announced that nonviolent protesters would receive only civil citations. The defense attorneys noted that 157 other protesters received citations, including four who climbed the same fence the previous day. The use of the bolt cutter is irrelevant, they said, because no one was charged with using the tool.
"I'm disappointed in the verdict," said Center City attorney Paul Hetznecker, who represented Bohn. "I don't think the federal government should be prosecuting individuals who cross over into a restricted area that's a quarter-mile away from the site of the Wells Fargo Center in an effort to thwart First Amendment rights."
"I'm obviously disappointed," added Center City attorney David M. Walker. who represented Martin. "We had hoped for an acquittal. They were basically expressing their First Amendment rights in a different way. They were outside a fence that they believed was unlawful and they wanted their voices heard."