Hundreds of non-violent protesters recently arrested by Houston police can sleep a little easier tonight.
The Harris County District Attorney’s Office announced today that they had dropped nearly 800 criminal charges made against people who were taken into police custody after participating in local protests concerning the killing of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter movement and police reform.
A total of 796 criminal cases against 654 protesters have been dismissed, which were characterized by District Attorney Kim Ogg’s office as mostly non-violent misdemeanors such as trespassing and obstructing highways.
The Houston Protestors’ Defense Team, a group of more than 70 local lawyers offering their time to provide free legal assistance to protesters, discussed these dismissals in noon press conference Wednesday. To Monique Sparks, a Houston criminal defense attorney who represents the organization, the DA’s move was a step in the right direction, but was still just that—a single step.
“That was a good start,” Sparks said, “but we’re not done.” For starters, her group would like to see a formal apology to the protesters in question from the Houston Police Department and the DA's office.
Prior to the press conference, the DA’s office issued a statement that came short of an apology. District Attorney Ogg described her team’s belief that the initial arrests were justified, even though the charges were waived upon further review.
“While probable cause existed for the arrests of those people who refused to disperse after being ordered to do so by police, our young prosecutors worked hard to identify the few offenders who came to inflict harm on others and intentional damage to property,” Ogg said in a statement to the press.
“We will always protect the First Amendment rights of peaceful protesters,” Ogg continued. “The only people I will be prosecuting are those who intentionally hurt others and intentionally destroy property.”
According to the DA’s office, out of the 654 protesters who were arrested, 51 adults and one juvenile still have active charges against them—that includes 35 misdemeanors and 19 felonies for things such as weapon possession and assault of peace officers on the scene.
Dane Schiller, a spokesman for the DA, explained that their office believes these protesters whose charges were dismissed “should not face the prospect of being saddled with criminal records that could impact educational, employment and other opportunities.”
Despite that sentiment, these protesters will still need to go through the formal process of having their arrests expunged from their criminal records in order to have a truly clean slate, which involves a fee and professional legal representation in some cases.
In Ogg’s opinion, the Houston legal defense community can shoulder some of that burden. “With so many professionals wanting to contribute, I am confident that the criminal defense bar will volunteer their services to clean up the criminal records of all involved,” she said.
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Sparks explained that the filing fee for an expunction is $350, which protesters would still have to pay even if they received free legal representation. The Houston Protesters' Defense Team believes it’s unjust that these non-violent protesters now have to go through the process of having their dismissed charges expunged from their records.
“We need these charges to be automatically expunged,” Sparks said. If that's not on the table, she offered a potential compromise.
“If the DA’s office will not immediately expunge the records of all the protesters,” Sparks said, “we urge the DA and the district clerk to waive those fees associated with the expunctions of each of the protesters.”
However, according to Schiller: "We can't automatically expunge records and we do not charge any fees. Any fees are from the courts, not the DA. We do not charge a fee, collect a fee or benefit from a fee."