A Mecklenburg County judge found three members of Occupy Charlotte not guilty Thursday on charges of resisting, obstructing or delaying officers, eight months after they were arrested while their uptown camp was dismantled.
Occupy Charlotte supporters burst into applause and bumped fists after Mecklenburg District Court Judge John Totten delivered his verdict. All three had been arrested and charged with a misdemeanor after they refused to leave a tent on the lawn in front of old City Hall in January.
Activists said its too soon to say how the verdict could affect their plans for the upcoming Democratic National Convention, which is expected to draw thousands of protesters. Some already have said they plan to occupy public spaces, such as Frazier Park near uptown.
It gives me confidence that if unlawful arrests happen, well have recourse, said Laura Brooks, one of the three acquitted. As to whether it changes anything in terms of what we do for the DNC, Im not sure about that yet.
In a statement late Thursday, Charlotte-Mecklenburg police spokesman Officer Robert Fey said the acquittal would not change how police respond to similar situations.
Two weeks ago another District Court judge found an Occupy member guilty of the same charge and under similar circumstances, Fey said. Nothing in todays verdict changes our strategy in responding to situations where persons decide to use public property for living accommodations.
During the trial, Charlotte residents Jason Dow, Scottie Wingfield and Brooks didnt dispute that they linked arms and went limp as a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police lieutenant cut their tent away around them on Jan. 30. They were then handcuffed and carried to a waiting jail transport van.
Their lawyer, Jake Sussman, argued that because there were no materials for sleeping or personal belongings in the tent, and they werent sleeping there, that the tent was in compliance with the citys anti-camping ordinance and the arrests unlawful.
Prosecutors argued that the three were on trial for not complying with officers not for violating the citys ordinance so what the tents were being used for was a not an issue.
A mistake, I think, was made, he said of the arrests. Court finds the defendants not guilty.
The verdict could be a setback for Charlotte City Council, which approved the anti-camping ordinance in late January to deal with the Occupy encampment, which had been set up in front of old City Hall on Trade Street since late fall. The new ordinance defined camping on city property as a nuisance, and forbid tents and living accommodations being used for sleeping. Camping was defined as sleeping or making preparations to sleep, or storing belongings.
City Council also passed an extraordinary events ordinance, giving police expanded search powers and prohibiting items such as helmets and gas masks at designated extraordinary events. A week later, police moved in to clear out the camp.
But after the ordinance passed, Occupy members had removed bedding, such as blankets, from many of the tents, including Brooks art tent. Police officers testified under cross examination that they didnt observe any bedding or other sleeping materials in the tent.
They did say they saw art supplies, which prosecutors argued constituted storing personal belongings in the tent. But Brooks said the art supplies were donated and communally held.
I was doing art, said Brooks, who goes by the name Laurel Green. None of it was illegal.
Since the tent wasnt being used for sleeping, Sussman said it shouldnt have been targeted for removal. We have no evidence, no testimony, why that tent was out of bounds, Sussman told the judge. Saying it is the type of tent that could be used for camping is insufficient.