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Cleveland’s Legal System Prepares For the Republican Convention

Cleveland police in riot gear

  Attorneys and judges are preparing to represent and process demonstrators who may be passing through the local courtrooms during this summer’s Republican National Convention. For Ohio Public Radio, WCPN's Nick Castele reports on how the local justice system is gearing up.

When protesters marched through Cleveland after the acquittal of police officer Michael Brelo last year, another group was close by, watching the action. They call themselves legal observers. They walk through demonstrations wearing neon green baseball caps and take note of how police interact with protesters.

“If you see, for example, an arrest occurring: Was there a dispersal order given to the crowd before that arrest happened? We would document what type of dispersal order was given, if any, the wording used, how many times it was stated to the crowd; was it audible to everybody?”

Planning for protest
Jacqueline Greene is a local attorney who coordinates the Ohio chapter of the National Lawyers’ Guild. She’s planning training sessions for attorneys, law students, activists and others who want to take part during this year’s RNC.

“Anybody can be a legal observer. There’s kind of a common assumption that you have to be a lawyer. That’s not true. We do not train members of law enforcement, but beyond that you are welcome to come and train with us.”

The information that observers gather might end up in civil cases or defending people arrested while protesting.

“We also teach documentation techniques in terms of how to take photos or video, or things along those lines, and we also teach how to recognize which different law enforcement agencies may be present.”

Legal observers
They collect names and badge numbers of officers in the field, and they’re warned that being a legal observer is no sure safeguard against arrest. They’re planning to ride bicycles around the convention area, and those with cameras will focus not on protesters, but on police. They know that officers will be filming right back.

Police recorded video during last year’s demonstrations. Officers are heard chanting “move back” as they advance toward protesters and a legal observer in an alley.

Cleveland held people in jail from Saturday night, through Sunday and into Monday morning. The city faced a lawsuit last year, and agreed to new mass arrest and dispersal procedures.

A new process
Cleveland Municipal Judge Ronald Adrine says police have committed to processing people more quickly this summer. He’s hoping it’ll take about 10 to 12 hours from arrest to first court appearance.

“I just want them to recognize that people do have a constitutional right under the First Amendment to peaceful assembly and to speech, and to give people the greatest latitude to exercise those constitutional rights.”

But he says police will arrest people who cross the line. 

“And from what I get from the police department, crossing the line will primarily involve individuals who have broken something or broken somebody.”

Adrine says judges have cleared their schedules for the week, so they can focus on new arrests that happen during those days in July. 

“We’re gearing up to try to be able to handle as many as 1,000 people a day coming through our doors. We’re hoping we don’t have to do that, but we will be running court 24-hours-a- day for the four days the convention will be in Cleveland.”

They’ll be processing arrested protesters, as well as the gamut of arrests police usually bring in each day. If the charges aren’t serious, defendants could be out on what’s called a personal bond — meaning they can leave jail without having to pay.

One phone call
Jacqueline Greene says the National Lawyers Guild will try to stay in touch with people in jail.

“We have a hotline people can call. And they can report to us where they’re being held, they can report, for example, if they are injured. If they need someone to let their family know that they’re safe, we can do things like that.”

Attorneys including James Hardiman of the NAACP will be on call to give arrested demonstrators representation in court. While some may plead to resolve their cases quickly, he says, others could spend weeks in court fighting their charges.

“It’s almost a guarantee that some of the legal work will last past the RNC and past the time when all of the Republicans have packed their bags.”

He says the city could minimize potential problems by sitting down with protest groups ahead of the convention. It’s something Cleveland’s police chief says he’s open to doing.