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At Arraignment Court in St. Paul

Teresa Nelson,
Legal Director ,
ACLU of Minnesota
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September 5, 2008

With close to 300 protestors arrested so far during the Republican National Convention, the ACLU of Minnesota volunteer attorneys have had their work cut out for them representing people at their arraignments (where arrestees plead “guilty” or “not guilty” to the charges against them). For two days, attorneys from the Public Defender’s office, volunteers with the ACLU of Minnesota and attorneys from the Minnesota Chapter of the National Lawyer’s Guild have been on hand to make sure that every arrestee has the benefit of an attorney for their arraignment.

The overall atmosphere at the Ramsey County Law Enforcement Center is almost surreal. The building’s normal security has been amped up to the point that the entire facility is surrounded by 8- or 9-foot-high chain-link fencing. The perimeter is patrolled by the National Guard, (I’m guessing, I didn’t ask), and you have to pass through a security checkpoint to get within the fenced-in perimeter. Attorneys with their driver’s license and attorney license are allowed to enter with their briefcase but no cell phone. Everybody else must present their ID and they are not allowed to have any bags or other property. Once inside the perimeter, you walk down a fenced corridor to the main doors where you are greeted with another checkpoint where you again show your IDs and have your bag and shoes run through an X-ray machine. As I walked the fenced corridor for the first time, I though how ironic it was that this center routinely houses people who are accused of murder and other horrible violent crimes, all without these massive security precautions.

And what about all those arrests? The numbers so far show that as of Thursday afternoon, about 300 people have been arrested in St. Paul and about 100 in Minneapolis. All but a handful of the Minneapolis arrestees were cited and released immediately.

St. Paul is a different story. Some people were cited with misdemeanors, processed and released within a few hours; but the vast majority of people were charged with “gross misdemeanors” or felonies. They were held up until their 36 hours expired. (Minnesota law requires individuals in custody to be charged and brought before a judge or released after 36 hours, not including the day of arrest, weekends and holidays.)

Wednesday was a big day in arraignment court because, for most of the arrestees, their 36 hours was up at noon. According to the Star Tribune, 71 people were arrested on felony charges. Twenty-seven of them were dismissed outright. We have been told that all but around 25 of the rest have already been reduced to lesser charges. Our volunteer attorneys were surprised by the high bail amounts they saw on Tuesday, and Wednesday was more of the same.

On Tuesday one of our attorneys told the judge for the record that in his 30 years of practicing criminal law, he has never seen $2,000 bail for charges of disorderly conduct. By Wednesday evening when the calendar turned to the last 50 or so misdemeanor arraignments, bail amounts were down in the $200 to $500 range for out-of-state defendants and no bail for in-state residents. Our attorneys heard stories from many people, including journalists, who reported being swept up by police without regard to their actions. One person reported that he worked for a security company and he was on his way to report to his assignment — at the convention — when police arrested him along with others. Complicating matters for those who have been released is the seizure and holding of their property. We have been getting calls all day from people who are in a jam because their car keys, backpacks, purses, wallets, credit cards, IDs and cell phones were taken by police. They are not able to drive their vehicles home because they don’t have their keys and they can’t get a place to stay without access to their money.

Outside the Law Enforcement Center on Wednesday evening, the atmosphere was a mix of joy and apprehension. Family members and friends came to await the release of their loved ones and friends. Clusters of people gathered on the sidewalks and boulevards to reunite with people being released. A guitarist played mellow music to one small group of people and the assembled group was peaceful. Across the street, a group of police on horseback watched the sidewalk in anticipation. Another group of police in riot gear was assembled nearby the mounted patrol. On the other side, at least one more group of police in riot gear also kept a watchful eye on the peaceful crowd. By the time I left the LEC when court was winding down, all but one group of police in riot gear had left the area.

The ACLU of Minnesota will continue to provide attorneys for the arraignments of people taken into custody in RNC-related arrests and we will be reviewing police actions and arrests for possible civil rights litigation to vindicate the constitutional rights of protestors and journalists.

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