It seems like everywhere you look lately, there is someone protesting, or worse – rioting – about something. The First Amendment protects a lot of this behavior, encouraging citizens to speak freely and criticize the government. But it can go way too far, leading to violence against people and property. So, what happens after the smoke and tear gas clear? What happens to the protestors and rioters who are taken away in handcuffs? Well, it depends on what they are in trouble for. When it comes to rioting, protesting, and everything that comes along with it, the law is a continuum of crime and punishment.
Of course, as with most other crimes, it really depends on which jurisdiction the act occurs in that will determine what someone is charged with. If the activity took place on federal grounds, such as in front of a federal building like a court house or FBI branch, then the charges will be federal charges. Otherwise, state law will usually apply to the charges.
One common thing protestors can be arrested for is unlawful assembly. This happens when a police officer asks a group to leave the area, and they refuse. This is typically classed as a misdemeanor. The problem with this law is that it is quite broad, meaning law enforcement officers have a lot of discretion in determining whether or not to arrest someone. Unlawful assembly could really be anyone from a group in a park loitering and listening to music, or an organized march. One way to get around the unlawful assembly charge is to be organized and obtain all the appropriate permits and permissions from the city. Check with your city hall and local police department to determine what each entity needs. It is best to do this with plenty of time before you wish to protest, as bureaucracy can always result in delays. If you do not have time to get organized, the chances of arrest are much higher, particularly if the protest grows and results in blocked roads, sidewalks, or private property – especially if it endangers the flow of traffic.
When peaceful protests turn violent, then the potential for charges and arrests grow exponentially. Violent protests will be classed as a riot, which is always a crime – although the seriousness of the crime depends upon the circumstances. Essentially, most definitions of a riot is the assembly of three or more people who intend to disturb the peace of the public by an intentional act or threat of unlawful force of violence against a person or property. So, when you see the footage on television about looters, brick throwers and people taking baseball bats to cars – yes – they are committing a crime, even as they protest. But, sometimes rioters can be charged with this crime for less obvious offenses. For example, a group of people who gather in a park to protest homelessness by sleeping overnight and playing loud music and chanting which disturbs people trying to sleep might also be considered rioting.
Depending on the circumstances, most of the arrests and bookings are the same once it gets to that point. Of course, if an arrest occurs in one of the more volatile situations, instead of handcuffs, the police might use zip ties. There might be a period of waiting, lined up on the street arrested waiting to be transported to the local station to be booked. However, once inside the department to be booked, the process is basically the same as any other basic arrest. They will take your information, fingerprints and mug shot. They may keep you detained before you are able to speak to a judge, but you might also have the ability to be bailed out if you promise to come back later, after paying a money. Regardless, anyone arrested for actions that occurred while protesting is entitled to a chance to be heard, as well as a chance to be defended by a competent lawyer. The best thing to avoid an arrest at a protest is to first, get organized and ensure you have obtained all the appropriate permissions to gather, and second, avoid and leave any areas that turn violent. If you see destruction of property, leave immediately and go home. It does no good for anyone when your exercise of free speech is overshadowed by horrible acts of violence.