ACLU of Hawaii Tells Court Protesters Were Unlawfully Arrested

Affiliate: ACLU of Hawaii
August 2, 2006 12:00 am

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Honolulu Officials Misused Trespass Law to Silence Advocates for the Homeless, ACLU Says

HONOLULU — The American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii announced today that it has filed a motion in criminal court on behalf of two advocates for the homeless arrested for trespassing while peacefully protesting on the grounds of Honolulu City Hall. The ACLU is asking the court to dismiss the case on the grounds that the protesters were unlawfully arrested while exercising their constitutional rights to assemble and protest.

The protesters were opposing the City and County of Honolulu’s (CCH) decision to begin 10:00 p.m. nightly closure of Ala Moana Beach Park — a decision that callously and suddenly displaced more than 200 homeless individuals.

“Both CCH officials and police officers prevented the group from exercising its constitutional right to assemble and protest,” said ACLU of Hawaii cooperating attorney Rick Sing of the criminal defense firm Hawk Sing & Ignacio. “The defendants’ baseless arrest raises serious concerns about the police department’s practices, training and supervision, particularly about the right of citizens to petition their government. The results of this case will impact the free speech rights of every Honolulu resident.”

On March 27, 2006, Defendants Julia Matsui Estrella and Utu Langi, advocates for the homeless, alongside approximately 50-60 other advocates, church leaders and homeless persons, marched to the grounds of City Hall to protest the park’s closure and the CCH’s failure to provide adequate alternatives for the displaced homeless. Less than two hours later, they were in jail.

The ACLU of Hawaii argues that the CCH reacted to their peaceful and lawful protest by taking affirmative steps to intimidate and ultimately silence their dissent. City officials directed Honolulu Police Department officers to cite Estrella and Langi for trespassing and subsequently to arrest them on the charge of “Criminal Trespass” after they refused to leave the grounds of City Hall. Their trial is currently scheduled to begin August 29, 2006.

Prior to filing the motion to dismiss, the ACLU of Hawaii urged the Department of the Prosecuting Attorney to drop both charges on First Amendment grounds. The ACLU further asserted that the protesters cannot be charged for Criminal Trespass because the statute applies to commercial property – not public property like City Hall. The prosecutor’s failure to drop the charges led to the ACLU’s current motion.

This is the second time in two years that the ACLU has risen to challenge unconstitutional enforcement of the Criminal Trespass statute. In 2004, the Hawaii legislature expanded the Criminal Trespass Statute with Act 50 (the so-called “Squatter’s Law”), which allowed any authorized individual to “ban” individuals from public property for any or no reason. The law was intended to target people living on public beaches, but the result was erosion of access to public spaces, including government buildings. The ACLU dropped its challenge to the law after the legislature repealed Act 50. However, the ACLU said the protesters’ arrest shows that despite the repeal of Act 50 subjectivity and bias are still being used to justify oppression of the homeless and their advocates and of free assembly in public places.

“Our lawsuit challenging Act 50 sought to end the unbridled discretion given to law enforcement officials to engage in arbitrary and capricious denials of protected expression based on nothing more than their individual prejudices and predilections,” said Lois Perrin, ACLU of Hawaii Legal Director. “Despite the fact that Act 50 was repealed, we now know that police officers are still using it as a tool to chill constitutionally protected speech simply because they do not agree with the content of the message. The Constitution does not tolerate such behavior.”

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