Thursday, April 23, 2009

Appeals Court Rules In Favor Of Sheehan Protesters

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals on Wednesday upheld a ruling that two protesters should not have been arrested for pitching tents near then-President George W. Bush's Crawford ranch during Cindy Sheehan's anti-war campaign. The court ruled 5-4 that the 10th Appeals Court was correct last year in tossing out the convictions of Hiram Myers of Edmond, Okla., and Emily Hardy of Austin, saying they were not obstructing a highway during their 2006 arrests. "I'm really pleased we prevailed," said David Broiles, the Fort Worth attorney who represented the protesters. "The court ruled that you can't use that (statute) to stop a lawful protest." McLennan County District Attorney John Segrest in Waco, whose office prosecuted the case, did not return a call to The Associated Press seeking comment Wednesday. Myers and Hardy were among about two dozen war protesters arrested in late 2005 and early 2006 when they disobeyed deputies' orders to get out of tents in ditches beside the winding, two-lane road leading to Bush's ranch. They staged the protests to challenge a McLennan County ordinance banning roadside camping. The local law, which protesters thought was unconstitutional, had been enacted after residents complained about noise, trash and traffic from the makeshift campsite Sheehan set up in August 2005. But Myers and Hardy -- the only protesters from Sheehan's vigil to go to trial -- were never charged with violating the local ordinance. Instead, they were charged with and later convicted of obstructing a road, a state misdemeanor. Each was fined $150, although the maximum penalty is 180 days in jail and a $2,000 fine. "The state's witnesses all testified that the demonstrators did not actually obstruct the road and that the demonstrators, including (Myers and Hardy), remained at all times in the bar ditch, an area commonly used for standing and parked vehicles," Judge Cheryl Johnson wrote in the majority opinion. The ACLU of Texas called the ruling "a monumental victory for the First Amendment." "We are delighted to hear that the court has decided to uphold the rights of Texans to peacefully assemble and protest the actions of their government," Lisa Graybill, ACLU of Texas legal director, said in a statement Wednesday. In the dissenting opinion, presiding Judge Sharon Keller wrote that videotaped footage presented at the trial provides support for the convictions. "So there was in fact evidence that (Myers and Hardy), by sitting in a tent beside the road, rendered passage unreasonably inconvenient or hazardous, and there was in fact evidence that the tents themselves obstructed passage or made it hazardous," Keller wrote. Broiles said that while pleased with the ruling, the protesters wanted to challenge the local anti-camping ordinance -- and a similar one banning roadside parking within a few miles of the ranch. He said they wanted to be able to return periodically to place tents at Sheehan's original campsite. Even before the restrictions, protesters that summer moved to a vacant lot near the ranch as Sheehan's first vigil swelled to thousands, gained international attention and reinvigorated the anti-war movement. Sheehan, a California woman whose soldier son was killed in Iraq, later bought land in Crawford for the protests. "We contend the ordinance was not necessary, not constitutional and not justifiable because we were just exercising our free speech that was the symbol of Cindy's movement," Broiles said. "All we wanted was to put up a few tents. There was no need to replicate August 2005. We were interested in preserving the symbolism of it and having the close proximity to Bush's ranch." The anti-camping and parking ordinances remain in place. The camping ban aims to prevent temporary living situations and road obstacles for safety, and give "due regard to ... the interests of persons in making use of roads for activities intended to express ideas and messages," according to the ordinance. It still lacks penalty provisions but says a violator could be charged criminal trespassing, obstruction of a roadway or other offense, depending on the circumstances. "It basically says you can protest all you want -- just don't set up and live here," said Mike Dixon, a Waco attorney who represents McLennan County.

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