Alabama Federal Judge Upholds Anti-Riot Statute

Alabama Federal Judge Upholds Anti-Riot Statute State guards and MPDC Police officers outside Capitol building

State guards and MPDC Police officers were protecting and trying to disperse all crowds in front of the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., on Jan, 6. (Dreamstime)

By Charlie McCarthy | Friday, 14 May 2021 08:07 AM

A federal judge in Alabama on Thursday upheld the constitutionality of an anti-riot law that critics claim is racist and threatens demonstrations protected by the First Amendment.

U.S. District Court Judge Terry Moorer, former President Donald Trump's first Black appointee to the federal bench, issued his decision in a case involving a woman on trial for violating the "civil disorder" law during a protest in Mobile, Alabama, following the George Floyd killing.

The judge rejected claims of selective prosecution and racial bias, noting that while the statute has been used rarely in recent decades, it is now being used in dozens of cases related to the Jan. 6 attack at the Capitol, Politico reported.

"While [civil disorder law] prosecutions may not be common, it is clearly being applied now to a variety of persons — between the few cases that stemmed from the George Floyd protests that turned into civil disorder and more recently the cases asserted against some participants in the events on January 6, 2021, at the U.S. Capitol. Each of the … prosecutions that arose from those protests encompass individuals of a variety of races and genders with extremely different ideology," Moorer wrote.

Moorer's decision in favor of prosecutors clears the way for Tia Pugh, 22, to face trial next week on a single felony charge stemming from her alleged action of smashing a police car window with a bat during a protest.

TV news footage captured the moment the police car window was shattered during the protest.

Pugh’s attorneys challenged the statute on various legal grounds. They also said the provision termed the "Civil Obedience Act" appeared to be a dig at Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and others advocating civil disobedience during the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Prosecutors said the defense attorneys’ motion to dismiss the case was a coordinated effort by lawyers across the country to take aim at the law being used against people accused of violence during last year's racial justice protests.

In his 24-page opinion, Moorer said the law is sound constitutionally. He also turned down a defense argument the law doesn't meet federalism principles in the Constitution because it fails to require a sufficiently substantial connection between interstate commerce and the "civil disorder" — a prerequisite for the federal felony charge.

Nevertheless, Pugh will be able to use that argument at her trial by claiming there is a lack of evidence the protest actually disrupted commerce. Police closed an off-ramp from the interstate during the demonstration, prosecutors have said, and trucks with hazardous cargoes were told to detour. It remained unclear if any trucks actually did.

Gordon Armstrong, Pugh's lead attorney, called Moorer’s ruling "disappointing, but not entirely unexpected." He said a ruling in favor of the defense was more likely to come from an appellate panel than from a trial judge.

"Now, we turn to the trial and don't look back," Armstrong said.

Pugh and others around the country were charged after Trump and then-Attorney General Bill Barr called for a federal crackdown of violent demonstrators. The case against Pugh appears likely to become the first of such cases to go to trial.

Although a few of those federal cases have ended in guilty pleas, many appear to have been dropped or paused in deals that would result in cases being dropped should defendants stay out of trouble for a pre-determined period of time.

Pugh faces up to 5 years in prison if convicted on the federal felony charge. Sentencing guidelines often call for much shorter sentences for offenders with little or no criminal record.

The U.S. Attorney in Mobile filed the federal charge against Pugh just five days after the incident. She already had been arrested by local police on charges of inciting a riot and criminal mischief.

No court has struck down the civil disorder statute, but only one federal appeals court upheld it. The St. Louis-based 8th Circuit did so in a case involving two men convicted of throwing cherry bombs at firefighters as they tried to extinguish a blaze at the Washington University campus.

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