Typically, a misdemeanor trespassing charge is so minor that it is resolved quickly, with a judge either handing down a punishment or allowing the accused to go free. The cases rarely result in a jury trial.
But last week in Arlington County, 19 people who were accused of trespassing when they refused to leave the Bush-Cheney campaign headquarters during a demonstration in the weeks before the November election had their day in Circuit Court. Two days, to be precise.
A jury found the defendants guilty of trespassing. On the second day of the trial, after about a dozen witnesses were called on behalf of the offenders, the jury sentenced each to pay $50 in fines.
Each had faced up to a year in jail or up to $2,500 in fines for their roles in the Oct. 18 protest outside the high-rise building, in the 2100 block of Wilson Boulevard. More than 100 demonstrators had gathered to voice opposition to the administration's AIDS policies.
In convicting the 19 protesters, the jury found that the defendants had branched off from the other demonstrators, entered the first-floor campaign office, including its reception area and a secured room, and refused to leave even after being asked repeatedly to do so.
"There are plenty of opportunities for free speech when it is lawfully done," Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Andrew Parker told the jury. "But the line was drawn when they crossed onto the private property and wouldn't leave."
Some protesters chained themselves to the emergency fire exit, and others chained themselves to one another in the reception area and chanted against the administration's policies.
They caused about $1,000 in damage.
Their attorney, James G. Connell, said they had gone there hoping to speak with high-level staffers but were rebuffed. Judge Joanne F. Alper refused to hear arguments about the motivations for the demonstration and sternly told Connell that neither the administration nor its policies on AIDS were relevant to the charges.
"I do not want these individuals making speeches about AIDS," Alper said from the bench in the presence of the seven-member jury. The jury had five people fewer than the usual number because the case involved a misdemeanor charge and because it was an appeal of earlier convictions.
A District Court judge had found the men and women guilty earlier this year, but rather than satisfy their punishments, which ranged from fines to several days in jail, the defendants chose to fight the case in Circuit Court.
Even with the demand that the reasons for the demonstration not be explained during the trial, Asia Russell, one of the protesters, testified that she helped organize the demonstration because she wanted to talk to high-level staffers about the reelection team's stance on domestic and global AIDS.
After getting nowhere, she told the jury, "I attached myself with chains to the other protesters."
A video of the demonstration and arrests was shown to the jury. Outside the building, where several people had chained themselves to the rear exit, several laughed loudly and asked the police officers whether they would be handcuffed.
Moments later they were, but not before the officers gave them a chance to leave without being arrested.
"There were reasons for this, and after trying numerous alternative methods, they chose another one, and that was one of civil disobedience," Connell said.