What Are Your Options If You’re Criminally Charged For A Peaceful Protest?

If you've recently taken part in one of the many large-scale demonstrations sweeping the country during the height of election season, you may have been shocked to have been detained or even placed under arrest for your peaceful occupation or marching. What are your legal rights when it comes to peaceful protest, and do you have any options if you feel your rights have been violated? What if you can't afford an attorney? Read on to learn more about your constitutional right to assemble, as well as some situations in which fighting criminal charges may be more of a challenge.

What are your rights when it comes to participating in a peaceful protest or demonstration? 

The U.S. Constitution, as well as most state constitutions, gives citizens the right to peacefully assemble and exercise free speech in any public location. However, these freedoms can be curtailed in some situations if necessary to protect public health or safety. For example, a demonstration that spills into the streets and begins to cause car accidents -- or turns violent and results in injuries to protesters or police -- could result in the protest being shut down and ringleaders or participants being jailed or fined. 

These constitutional rights also don't extend to protests or demonstrations on private property. Although a property owner can permit you to assemble, once this permission is revoked, you're obligated to leave or face trespassing charges. In the technological world, this can mean that state, city, and town governments may have the option to censor comments posted on a public social media page (if the social media company is a private, non-governmental company).

You'll also be subject to arrest during a demonstration if you're violating any other laws in the process. If you're already subject to an active warrant or body attachment and you come into contact with a member of law enforcement who asks for your identification, you can legally be arrested and arraigned on the underlying charges behind your warrant. By that same token, if you're stopped and searched and officers discover contraband or drug paraphernalia on you, you'll be arrested and charged.

However, as long as you are behaving in a peaceful manner, aren't impeding traffic or posing a health or safety threat, and remain on public property for the duration of the protest, there should be no cause for your arrest -- and the officer or officers who arrest you could find themselves opening the local government to civil liability.

What are your options if you're arrested while peacefully assembling? 

If you are arrested at a peaceful protest and believe your civil rights have been violated, you may need two separate attorneys -- one to handle your criminal defense and another to help you decide whether pursuing a civil lawsuit against the city or county government that authorized your arrest would be a good idea. If you can't afford an attorney on your own for the criminal matter, you should be able to request a public defender, who will refute your charges and do his or her best to have the case dismissed due to the unlawful nature of the arrest.

Filing a civil lawsuit can be a lengthier process, and is generally only worth it if you've suffered tangible losses due to the arrest (like the loss of a job or an injury suffered while in jail) and your criminal case is dismissed or you're acquitted of the charges. Showing that your criminal case had no merit can go a long way toward establishing the police officers' negligence in a civil lawsuit, and if your physical, financial, or emotional damage was significant, you're likely to be able to find an attorney to take this case on a contingency fee basis.