Having the ability to assemble, protest, and speak one's mind is one of the most valued and protected rights for all Americans. Americans of all political persuasions understand that being able to express dissent is necessary for the United States to remain committed to freedom.
But, while protesting is a right protected by the First Amendment, there are limits on what is allowed at a protest, and the right to protest does not include violence or inciting violence.
A Pittsburgh man is learning this lesson the hard way. Brian Bartels, 20, has been charged with one felony count each of federal criminal mischief, institutional vandalism, and riot along with five misdemeanor counts of recklessly endangering another person. The criminal complaint against Bartels said he caused more than $5,000 of damage.
Bartels was arrested after an anonymous tip was called in by a co-worker who recognized him from videos shared on social media showing a man who might have been Bartels attacking and vandalizing a police car during a Black Lives Matter protest in Pittsburgh. Police say the man's actions spurred the crowd to escalate in rhetoric and violence, to the point that protestors began throwing bricks and other projectiles at police officers who responded to the scene of the vandalized police vehicle. For their own safety, officers had to leave the scene and abandon the vehicle. Protestors then lit the police car on fire, completely destroying it.
Under federal law, protests that become violent are officially deemed to be “riots”. There are specific federal and state laws against rioting and inciting others to riot. If the rioter traveled across state lines or from another country to participate in the riot, federal laws may apply instead of state laws. Also, if the rioter broadcasted or demonstrated their intent to riot beforehand using a method that could cross state lines, federal laws may apply.
The line between legitimately protesting and rioting is not hard to navigate and the federal law against rioting specifically states that it is not intended to be used to prevent legitimate protests or the objectives of organized labor through orderly and lawful means.
Someone accused of rioting may also be able to be charged with Incitement to Riot and/or Conspiracy to Riot. Incitement to Riot is when a person encourages others to commit a breach of the peace, even if they did not do so themselves. This may involve statements, signs, or conduct intended to lead others to riot. Someone can be charged with Conspiracy to Riot if they planned acts that could result in a breach of the peace.
Someone charged in federal court for the crime of rioting can be punished with fines, imprisonment for up to five years, or both.
Protesting is a time-honored, cherished, fundamental American right. Legitimate protesters who do not engage in inciting behavior need not fear that their actions could be construed as rioting. But when their behavior incites others to violence, protesters can be charged with rioting.
If you have been charged with rioting or another offense related to protesting, call the Lento Law Firm right away at 888-535-3686. We can help you understand your rights and help you determine what you should do next.