City Hall Protesters Found Not Guilty of Trespassing

City Hall Protesters Found Not Guilty of Trespassing

Rev. Cortly “C.D.” Witherspoon, outside Central Booking, after arrest at Baltimore City Hall.  Photo by: William Hughes. Photo Source: Baltimore Brew.
Rev. Cortly “C.D.” Witherspoon, outside Central Booking, after arrest at Baltimore City Hall. Photo by: William Hughes. Photo Source: Baltimore Brew.

It took a long time to get their day in court to challenge the misdemeanor charges against them, but for two defendants and the attorney who represented them at trial, it was worth the wait.  Sharon Black and the Rev. C.D. Witherspoon were charged with trespassing  in a public building after hours on August 7, 2012.  Following three separate postponements, including one postponement due to Super Storm Sandy, the two were found not guilty by a judge in the District Court for Baltimore City on January 22, 2013.

Ironically, although the prosecution had requested a postponement which was granted in early October, the State's Attorney's office for Baltimore would not agree to a postponement sought by Black and Witherspoon for the January 22nd trial date, based on their plans to travel to Detroit the day before.  Black and Witherspoon made it to Detroit, anyway.  However, they had to cut short their stay to return to Baltimore in time for the trial, and they were tired from traveling.

The charges stemmed from a protest which Black and Witherspoon helped to organize outside City Hall on August 6, 2012.  After reading a letter to the assembled crowd which called for a halt to the scheduled closing of two recreation centers that week, for a jobs program in Baltimore City, and for an end to abuse by the police, Black and Witherspoon entered City Hall at around 4 p.m.  They vowed not to leave until they personally met with Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to deliver the letter and discuss its contents.

Their attempt to have an emergency audience with the mayor did not meet with success.  Instead, they were handcuffed and led out of City Hall by police at about 6 p.m., held overnight at Central Booking, released the following day, and issued charges for trespassing on government property.

At the time of their first court date, Black and Witherspoon were offered the chance to perform community service in exchange for pleading guilty to the charges against them.  They declined this offer on principle, stating that that they were not guilty and that their actions underlying the charges were community service.

According to Black in an interview for this article, "City Hall belongs to the people.  We pay taxes.  People have a right to seek redress for legitimate grievances.  The closed door policy and arrogance at City Hall are disturbing."

There was potentially a lot at stake for Black and Witherspoon.   According to the somewhat stilted language of the law under which they were charged, Maryland Code Criminal § 6-409, "A person may not refuse or fail to leave a public building... during the time when [it] is regularly closed to the public if: (1) the surrounding circumstances would indicate to a reasonable person that the person who refuses or fails to leave has no apparent lawful business to pursue at the public building...; and (2) a regularly employed guard, watchman, or other authorized employee of the government unit that owns, operates, or maintains the public building... asks them to leave. ... A person who violates this section is guilty of a misdemeanor and on conviction is subject to imprisonment not exceeding 6 months or a fine not exceeding $1,000 or both."

Although Black and Witherspoon felt that they had "apparent lawful business" to pursue at City Hall in presenting the letter to the mayor, it was the provision about being asked to leave by an authorized employee of City Hall itself that the District Court judge relied on to find them not guilty on Tuesday.  At trial, the prosecutor called several police officer witnesses to the stand to testify that Black and Witherspoon failed to leave the building when it closed, but none of them were authorized employees of City Hall.  This fact was made clear by Black's and Witherspoon's attorney J. Wyndal Gordon in his questioning of the officers.  Based on the not guilty verdicts, Black and Witherspoon plan to file petitions with the District Court to have the charges and arrests expunged from their records.

Lest activists and others misinterpret the outcome in this case, it should not be difficult for duly authorized City Hall employees to provide the requisite warnings and testimony required by the law in the future.

While they welcome their legal victory, Black and Witherspoon place it in perspective.  Rather than resting or celebrating, they are planning a protest for January 26, 2013 against the decision of the State's Attorney for Baltimore City not to prosecute any of the officers involved in an encounter last September which resulted in the death of Anthony Anderson, Sr.  Looking further to the future, Black and Witherspoon are organizing a march to take place in May of 2013 around the 40th anniversary of the Poor People's March on Washington, DC.

Coincidentally, on January 23, 2013, the day after Black and Witherspoon received their not guilty verdicts, Kim Truehart was removed from City Hall and arrested while attempting to attend a Board of Estimates meeting.

Curtis Cooper

Curtis Cooper is an attorney focusing on disability issues, employment law, and civil litigation.  He is a member of the Maryland Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild. Curtis' office is in Towson, and he can be contacted via his website.