Journalists face charges in Inauguration arrests; one sees charges dropped

Emma Lux | Newsgathering | News | January 27, 2017

Charges have been dropped against one of the seven individuals arrested and charged with felony rioting while covering the anti-Trump protests last Friday, according to a filing by the U.S. Attorney’s office in D.C. Superior Court.

Evan Engel, who works at the news site Vocativ, had been released pending trial last weekend. The rioting charge carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $25,000 fine.

“After consultation with the counsel for Mr. Engel, who is a journalist with Vocativ, as well as a review of evidence presented to us by law enforcement, we have concluded that we will not proceed with the charge against this individual,” prosecutors said in a media statement. Engel's lawyer is former White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler.

Prosecutors did not comment on the other cases, but said that they "are continuing to work with the Metropolitan Police Department to review evidence related to the arrests on Jan. 20. As in all of our cases, we are always willing to consider additional information that people bring forward."

The Reporters Committee is maintaining a page with the status of these cases. All of the individuals identifying themselves as journalists have demonstrated recent experience with posting news reports, photographs or videos to web sites. Some have indicated in social media profiles that they also consider themselves activists.

The journalists were among 230 people arrested and detained between the intersections of 13th and O Streets NW and 12th and L Streets NW. The large group included many of the disguised “black bloc” protesters who carried hammers, smashed windows, and vandalized a limousine.

Also among the crowd arrested at 12th and L Streets NW were RT America reporter Alex Rubinstein, freelance reporter Aaron Cantu, documentary producer Jack Keller, photojournalist Matthew Hopard, and independent journalists Shay Horse and Alex Stokes.

They are all charged with the highest level of offense under Washington D.C.’s law against rioting, which applies when there are injuries as a result of the activity or property damage in excess of $5,000. Two police officers were taken to the hospital with minor injuries during the confrontation.

Complaints in each of the cases state, without distinguishing between protesters and the journalists that were covering them, that the individuals “willfully engaged, incited and urged other people to engage in public disturbance.” None of the complaints associate any of the acts of vandalism or assault with particular individuals.

Various lawyers are also criticizing the tactics police used during the mass arrest. The National Lawyers’ Guild wrote that police violated D.C. law by failing to issue a dispersal warning and "kettling," or surrounding, the crowd en masse.

Jeffrey Light, a Washington D.C. lawyer has filed a lawsuit against police on behalf of 51 plaintiffs. The suit argues that the police surrounded and indiscriminately arrested not only the protesters, “but also members of the media, attorneys, legal observers and medics.”

“I was kept on the corner of 12th and L Streets for the first nine hours and didn’t receive water, bathroom or food for about 12 hours,” Stokes said by email. He said that he was detained for 35 hours, and only allowed ten minutes of sleep before his arraignment. Stokes says he hosts an Albany Public Access TV news show called "News World: Albany Banana Corps."

There is also a question of how police handled media credentials. Tim Poole, an independent journalist who posts to his own Youtube channel, wrote on his Twitter page that he and two television reporters were detained during the kettling, told they were not free to leave and were under arrest. But they were eventually released before police moved in to arrest the crowd after they repeatedly informed officers they were journalists and showed credentials.

Rubinstein could not be reached for comment. However, an RT America report states that he "wore his press credentials at all times" and showed them to police before being arrested.

Stokes says, "I was not asked for press credentials even after informing police that I was press."

Jack Keller, producer of the web documentary series Story of America, who was arrested while covering the protest, was not commenting on advice of an attorney. However, Annabel Park, the co-director of the web series, confirmed that Keller was arrested and detained for 36 hours while covering the protest, and that his cell phone remains in police custody.

“I don’t want to be afraid to document. Is this something that’s going to be normal?," Park added.