Attorney ‘outraged’ at arrests of weekend protest’s legal observers

Sisolak calls for investigation into arrests at Las Vegas Strip protest

By David Ferrara Las Vegas Review-Journal June 14, 2020 – 2:34 pm. Updated June 14, 2020 – 7:14 pm

Gov. Steve Sisolak on Sunday called for an investigation into the arrests of several legal observers at a protest against police brutality this weekend on the Strip.

“Any reports of police action against legal observers should be fully investigated and reviewed so a full understanding of what happened can be determined,” Sisolak said in a statement. “That information should be used to develop long-term solutions to avoid a similar re-occurrence in the future.”

At least seven attorneys and law students who documented interactions with police and demonstrators were taken to jail late Saturday.

“Legal observers provide a valuable service as part of our system of justice by informing protesters about how to lawfully express their rights and answering questions about what conduct is lawful,” Sisolak added in his statement.

News of the arrests drew condemnation from public officials and attorneys on social media.

In a tweet late Saturday, Clark County Commissioner Justin Jones called the arrests “unacceptable.”

Reached Sunday, Jones, an attorney, said that he had worked as a legal observer at protests in the past, though not in recent demonstrations.

Attorneys are trained to “take notes and not engage with either side,” he said.

“It was very disappointing that Metro appeared to have created chaos, and in the chaos arrested people who were simply there to observe,” Jones said Sunday.

Since Black Lives Matter protests began in Las Vegas after the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody, the commissioner has met with top brass at Metro and discussed how arrests were handled. He said hopes to meet with them again.

“There needs to be a broader discussion about what actions are appropriate by Metro when people are expressing their First Amendment rights,” Jones said. “We need to have a true dialogue and ensure that people’s First Amendment rights are protected.”

Nevada Attorney General Aaron Ford echoed Sisolak’s call for an investigation. In a statement Sunday night, he said, “Legal observers serve a pivotal role in our justice system, and they reserve the right to cover what’s going on in our community. Any reports of law enforcement action taken against them must be investigated so we can better understand what took place and avoid the same actions in the future.”

Metropolitan Police Department officials could not be reached for comment Sunday.

Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson declined to comment, saying in a text message that he had “not been provided with any reports or other relevant information.”

‘They didn’t care’

Belinda Harris, a chief deputy public defender and candidate for judge in North Las Vegas, was among those arrested as she walked the Strip with hundreds of others peacefully demonstrating against police brutality.

She was not protesting but acting as one of 15 legal observers.

Suddenly, as the march moved toward Las Vegas Boulevard and Russell Road, Harris was arrested along with six other legal observers. Five of them wore red T-shirts emblazoned with the words “LEGAL OBSERVER” and a symbol of justice in white.

“Last Night, LVMPD/NLVPD officers threw a peaceful attorney, simply standing on a sidewalk monitoring protesters with a legal observer shirt on, to the ground for no reason,” Harris wrote in a Sunday morning Facebook post. “She told them she was a cancer survivor and to not be so rough. They didn’t care.

“That Attorney was… ME!!!”

In a photo attached to Harris’ post, she stood with fellow public defender John Piro outside Mandalay Bay, wearing the shirts lawyers and law students don in order to distinguish themselves from the crowd.

North Las Vegas City Manager Ryann Juden addressed the accusation in a statement Sunday: “This is very troubling and we will fully investigate, because we share the Governor’s concern and desire to end historic and institutional racism in Nevada regardless of its insidious and oppressive form.”

The North Las Vegas Police Department plans to begin reviewing body camera footage Monday, he said.

This month, Sisolak, whose daughter works as a public defender, mentioned Piro in a statement, urging protesters to seek out the men and women in red shirts with legal questions about demonstrations.

“I’d like to thank John Piro for volunteering his time and expertise to help train and organize legal observers,” Sisolak wrote. “And thank you to all the attorneys across the Valley for helping to provide this valuable service as part of our system of justice.”

Piro was among those arrested Saturday and cited for “stepping into a roadway.”

His lawyer, Lisa Rasmussen, said Sunday that she was “outraged” at the arrests. She and attorneys Dayvid Figler and Kristina Wildeveld offered to represent the cited attorneys and others who have faced similar misdemeanor charges during the ongoing protests.

‘Purely retaliatory’

“It’s absolutely inappropriate of Metro to be doing this,” Rasmussen said. “It seems that it’s purely retaliatory. They don’t want people observing them. They don’t want to be held accountable. If you can’t see somebody is wearing a red shirt that clearly says legal observer, then you shouldn’t be a police officer … We’ve reached a new height. There can’t be confidence in any law enforcement agency who arrests legal observers who are not doing anything wrong and clearly marked as legal observers. We cannot as a community have any confidence in a police force that behaves this way.”

Rasmussen said at least eight legal observers in a different location at the protest were not arrested. Written on Piro’s citation were the words “did intentionally obstruct vehicular traffic by standing on a roadway.”

The charge references a Nevada law aimed at “walking along and upon highways,” which states that “a pedestrian walking or otherwise traveling on a sidewalk who encounters an obstruction to his or her mobility on the sidewalk, including, without limitation, a short section of the sidewalk that is missing or impassable, may proceed with due care on the immediately adjacent highway to move around such an obstruction.” Pedestrians also “must walk or otherwise travel as far to the side of the highway near the sidewalk as possible,” according to the law.

Clark County Public Defender Darin Imlay said Sunday that he did not have details on the arrests and could not immediately comment.

Piro also took to Facebook.

“We were obeying the law—that didn’t matter to police,” he wrote. “We were following officers’ orders—that didn’t matter. It was an overt display of power—a statement by the police that they can snatch you up anytime, for anything, and do whatever they want to you even when you are following the law and obeying their orders. Even if you are out there to protect other people’s rights.”

Other Las Vegas attorneys took to social media Saturday night and Sunday morning after learning of the arrests.

“Metro is out of control,” constitutional law attorney Maggie McLetchie, who represents the Review-Journal, wrote on Twitter. “It should not be interfering with peaceful protests at all, let alone arresting journalists and now legal observers. Make the madness stop.”

In a statement delivered Sunday morning, Sherrie Royster, the legal direct of the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, said the group has been monitoring protests across the valley.

“We are alarmed at the continued militarization of Las Vegas police,” Royster’s statement read in part. “Peaceful protesters at several events have encountered armored vehicles and officers in military gear and have also been subjected to surveillance. The responsibility for ensuring protests remain peaceful does not belong to demonstrators alone; it belongs to the police as well.”

Contact David Ferrara at [email protected] or 702-380-1039. Follow @randompoker on Twitter. Review-Journal staff writer Blake Apgar contributed to this report.

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