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Alabama judge upholds anti-riot law attorney says is ‘born out of a racist backlash’

AL.com logo AL.com 5/14/2021 Connor Sheets, al.com
a group of people in a car: Mobile police officers wearing gas masks are seen through the shattered window of a police vehicle during a standoff on an I-10 on-ramp in downtown Mobile on Sunday, May 31, 2020. © Lawrence Specker | LSpecker@AL.c/Lawrence Specker | LSpecker@AL.c Mobile police officers wearing gas masks are seen through the shattered window of a police vehicle during a standoff on an I-10 on-ramp in downtown Mobile on Sunday, May 31, 2020.

An Alabama federal judge has ruled that a controversial law used to prosecute protesters across the country over the past year is constitutional.

On Thursday, Judge Terry Moorer of U.S. District Court in Mobile issued an order rejecting claims by defense attorneys for Tia Pugh that the federal anti-riot law is racially biased. Pugh is charged with one count of violating the law during a protest in the wake of George Floyd’s murder last year.

The 22-year-old’s lawyers and critics have argued that the law is racially biased and has been used selectively to prosecute people who took part in protests aimed at racial justice and ending police violence. But Moorer stated in his opinion that people demonstrating in support of a range of political movements – from the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection to Black Lives Matter – have been charged with violating the law.

“Each of the prosecutions that arose from those protests encompass individuals of a variety of races and genders with extremely different ideology,” the judge wrote. “Thus, the Court finds that to the extent Pugh asserts a selective prosecution claim, the claim fails.”

Now that Moorer, a Black appointee of former President Donald Trump, has upheld the law, Pugh’s prosecution can move forward. She faces a single charge of violating the federal “civil disorder” law that has drawn criticism in recent months as it has been used to prosecute people who allegedly engage in violent acts while participating in protests.

Jury selection for the trial is to begin Monday before Moorer.

Gordon Armstrong, one of Pugh’s two attorneys, told AL.com in an email Friday that they are “disappointed but it was not entirely unexpected. The constitutional matters raised in the motion now become appellate issues if we get that far. We have turned our full attention to the trial of the case, and look forward to defending this citizen against the might of a government prosecution.”

Mobile Police arrested Pugh after she allegedly broke the window of a police vehicle with a baseball bat during a racial justice protest in Mobile on May 31, 2020.

“Anytime someone crosses a line of willful destruction of property, if we can identify who the perpetrator happens to be, we will take the approach that we will hold them accountable by bringing charges against them,” Mobile Police Chief Chief Lawrence Battiste told Fox 10 News shortly after her arrest.

Critics allege that prosecutors are stretching the limits of the law by using it to prosecute people engaged in activity that is illegal but does not rise to the level of a riot.

Armstrong argued earlier this year that the law “was born out of a racist backlash to the civil rights movement and gives prosecutors too much discretion to charge almost anyone engaged in a heated confrontation with police during a public demonstration,” according to Politico.

And some experts, like Ilya Somin, a professor at George Mason University’s Scalia Law School, argue that federal prosecution is not needed in such incidents.

“I think most of these crimes, even these sorts of local crimes, even local riots, the Constitution leaves to state jurisdiction,” she told Politico in June. “State and local authorities are in a better position to handle this, and they appear to be handling it.

Pugh’s attorneys also raised objections questioning the constitutionality of the law, but Moorer rejected those claims in his Thursday order.

Pugh also faces pending misdemeanor charges from the City of Mobile of 2nd degree Criminal Mischief, and inciting a riot. That case is set for a hearing in the Municipal Court for the City of Mobile on July 8.

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