WASHINGTON – In a memo to U.S. attorneys Thursday obtained by the Associated Press, the Justice Department emphasized that federal prosecutors should aggressively go after demonstrators who cause violence – and even sedition charges could potentially apply.
The sedition statute doesn't require proof of a plot to overthrow the government, the memo read. It instead could be used when a defendant tries to oppose the government's authority by force.
Attorney General William Barr has been pushing his U.S. attorneys to bring federal charges in protest-related violence whenever they can, keeping a grip on cases even if a defendant could be tried instead in state court. Federal convictions often result in longer prison sentences; sedition alone could lead to up to 20 years behind bars.
The memo cited as a hypothetical example a case in which “a group has conspired to take a federal courthouse or other federal property by force,” but that actually occurred in Portland, Oregon, during clashes that erupted night after night between law enforcement and demonstrators.
Justice officials also explored whether it could pursue either criminal or civil rights charges against city officials there, spokeswoman Kerri Kupec told the AP.
The Trump administration's crackdown on protest violence has already led to more than 300 arrests on federal crimes in the protests since the death of George Floyd.
An AP analysis of the data shows that while many people are accused of violent crimes such as arson for hurling Molotov cocktails and burning police cars and assault for injuring law enforcement, others are not. That's led to criticism that at least some arrests are a politically motivated effort to stymie demonstrations.
“The speed at which this whole thing was moved from state court to federal court is stunning and unbelievable,” said Charles Sunwabe, who represents an Erie, Pennsylvania, man accused of lighting a fire at a coffee shop after a May 30 protest. “It's an attempt to intimidate these demonstrators and to silence them.”
Some cases should not be in federal court, lawyers say, including a teenager accused of civil disorder for claiming online that “we are not each other's enemy, only enemy is 12,” a reference to law enforcement.
Though most protests have been peaceful, violence has erupted in Rochester, New York; Minneapolis, Washington, D.C., and Chicago. Federal officials were called to Kenosha, Wisconsin, after large protests and unrest following the shooting of Jacob Blake and the gunning down of two protesters and later arrest of a 17-year-old in their deaths.
Notably, that teenager has not been charged with any federal crimes. Neither was a man accused of shooting and killing a demonstrator in Louisville following the death of Breonna Taylor.
While many local prosecutors have dismissed dozens of low-level protest arrests, some are still coming down hard. A Pennsylvania judge set bail at $1 million for about a dozen people in a protest that followed the death of a knife-wielding man by police.