- Andrew Gordon and Josh Esmay are attorneys at The Legal Rights Center in Minneapolis, where they coordinate a legal support hotline and legal assistance for protesters who’ve been arrested.
- Most of the people in jail have not been through the legal system before, so the center is helping them learn their rights and deal with practical issues like contacting family and getting medication.
- The two lawyers say that the situation on the ground feels different from past demonstrations over police shootings, and that their legal work includes advocating for broader changes.
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Andrew Gordon is an attorney with The Legal Rights Center in Minneapolis, MN. Since 2014, he leads its community defense program, which offers free legal advice and defense to juveniles and adults charged with anything from misdemeanor traffic infringements up to first-degree murder.
The program is currently directing most of its resources to help people who’ve been arrested following the protests over the death of George Floyd, who died in May after police officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee to Floyd’s neck.
It feels different from past protests over police shootings.
I lived through the police shootings of Jamar Clark and Philando Castile. It’s different to what’s happened in the past. I think we’re seeing better organization on the ground, we’re seeing more people involved, more people volunteering. I hope that this will prompt actual, sustainable change.
My specific role right now is helping to coordinate a legal support hotline around the Twin Cities. It allows folks who are being arrested at a demonstration to call in and say, “I’ve been arrested, you should know who I am, here’s how you can keep track of me and help get me out.”
At this point, I’m making sure we have someone who will always be there to answer the phone and getting information about the hotline out to community members, primarily through Twitter, Facebook, and word of mouth. We have documented over 200 calls about arrests. On top of that, we get people calling to vent and express frustration, and we also get spam calls from right-wing trolls.
People also want to donate, but we are directing them to a fundraiser to support the recovery of Minneapolis’ Northside.
This is how we help people who’ve been arrested.
First thing we tell someone who’s been arrested is to take a deep breath. There’s a very good likelihood that despite your arrest, you’re going to be released without a bail. We make sure to document any injuries any individual received, such as being impacted by non-lethal munitions.
Then, it’s a matter of helping them through the process of organizing their immediate life. Who needs to know that they were arrested? Do they have kids at home, and if so, who’s watching them? Do they need medication, and how can we get the medication to them?
In the longer term, we’re advocating for a change of leadership in the police. We need more actual community members on the police force, as opposed to individuals who live outside of Minneapolis. We need a decrease in funding for the police and increased funding for community-based resources.
Josh Esmay, Gordon’s colleague at The Legal Rights Center, has been coordinating the direct response at jails, interviewing detained protesters and helping them navigate the system.
Most of the demonstrators have not experienced being arrested before.
I’m down at the jail meeting with people who’re held in custody and helping them apply for bail relief from the Minnesota Freedom Fund if it comes to that. Because I’m a criminal defense attorney and because most of the people I’m talking to haven’t experienced anything like this, it’s been helpful for them to sit down with me and have everything explained.
I go through the process step by step, starting with the law that’s impacting them right now. In Minnesota, there’s a 36-hour probable cause hold. Essentially, it means that if a cop thinks they have probable cause to arrest someone they can do that, and then the state can hold them in custody for up to 36 hours before a prosecutor has to make a decision about whether they’re going to charge the case or not.
If they don’t charge the case, they have to let the person go. If they do charge the case, then the person has to come in front of the judge and the judge can make a decision about bail. The folks that I’m talking to are currently waiting out this hold period.
Being arrested doesn’t mean that you’re going to be found guilty.
Even though it feels like the end of the world right now, they’re a long way from having a felony on their record. My gut feeling is that the officers aren’t being particularly careful in the middle of what they perceive to be a riot. They’re not gathering evidence or being detailed and meticulous in their police reports. I think what they’re doing is just picking everyone up and booking them for riot and then figuring it out later.
One of the things I’m telling clients is that one of the protections you have is that the cop’s decision to arrest you and book you for probable cause doesn’t mean you’re guilty. Let’s wait and see if you’re even charged. The first filtering process is going to be a prosecutor looking at it and asking whether the facts that the cops use to justify this arrest even meet the elements of a crime.
I try to keep them focused on getting out of here. But I do think it’s helpful for folks who are not well versed in the criminal justice system to hear about their trial rights and what to expect if they do end up going to court for their first appearance, which is sometimes called an arraignment hearing.
We’re concerned that charges against Officer Chauvin will be dismissed.
On Monday, I was at the jail for about seven hours, and then I went over to a rally at the governor’s mansion to talk about The Legal Rights Center’s concerns for how the county attorney charged the case against Officer Chauvin.
We have been working on the policy piece of trying to push for more appropriate and more effective charges against the officer. We have a big concern that the third-degree murder charge can’t stick against him.
The third-degree murder charge is for unintentional murder, but it is usually brought in a situation where there’s no intent to hurt any single individual person, such as going to a fair and firing a gun into a crowd.
We think it’s pretty likely that if that top charge doesn’t get changed, it gets dismissed with a written motion from the defense. That would be a disaster — you can imagine what the community reaction would be.