Manhattan lawmaker urges DAs not to prosecute protest misdemeanors

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There were scattered arrests, some vandalism, but it was mostly peaceful in Brooklyn during protests over the killed of George Floyd in Minneapolis. (Photo by Todd Maisel)

Hundreds of protesters wound up in NYPD custody during weekend protests over the police-involved death of Minneapolis’ George Floyd — with most facing misdemeanor charges such as disorderly conduct or unlawful assembly.

Manhattan state Senator Brad Hoylman called upon the city’s five district attorneys Monday not to prosecute the offenders, charging that “protesting injustice is not a crime.” 

“Systemic reform has to include our treatment of prisoners. There’s nothing unlawful about a New Yorker exercising their First Amendment rights,” Hoylman said in a June 1 statement. “Protesting injustice is not a crime. In New York City, prosecutors shouldn’t treat it as one.”

Hoylman was among the thousands of New Yorkers who participated at the George Floyd protests this weekend, marching through Staten Island and Union Square. While the majority of all protesters kept the peace, there were incidents of mayhem, including physical skirmishes with cops, vandalism, torching of police vehicles and looting in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

Both charges of disorderly conduct and unlawful assembly are Class B misdemeanors in New York state.

Disorderly conduct, under state law, covers a wide gamut of incidents that “cause public inconvenience, annoyance or alarm” or recklessly create various risks. The risks include engaging in fighting or violent behavior; making unreasonable noise; using abusive or obscene language in public; disturbing a lawful assembly; obstructing vehicular or pedestrian traffic; refusing to comply with a police order to disperse; or creating a hazardous or physically offensive condition.

The unlawful assembly charge, as defined in state penal law, involves assembly of “four or more other persons for the purpose of engaging or preparing to engage with them in tumultuous and violent conduct likely to cause public alarm.” It also applies to an individual who is “present at an assembly which either has or develops such purpose [and] remains there with intent to advance that purpose.”

As Class B misdemeanors, those convicted on either charge face maximum penalties of up to 3 months in prison or one year of probation, and are subject to a fine of up to $500.

Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez’s office has processed hundreds of arrests. According to a spokesperson, just five of the cases were out for arraignment, and most received desk appearance tickets. The office is still reviewing whether those cases will move forward.

On Monday, Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance said his office is “independently evaluating all arrests of protesters to determine if their cases should move forward.” 

“With regard to custodial arrests, we have independently evaluated and charged certain cases where assaults against police officers, destruction and looting are alleged,” Vance said in a statement. “This conduct is completely unacceptable and will be prosecuted aggressively when it is supported by the evidence.” 

amNewYork Metro reached out to the offices of Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz, Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark and Staten Island District Attorney Michael McMahon for comment on this story, but did not receive a response from them.