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Woman arrested in protest seeks dismissal of ‘seldom-invoked’ anti-rioting charge

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    MOBILE, Alabama (WALA) — A woman charged under a rarely used federal anti-riot law is scheduled to go on trial next month, but first a judge will have to decide whether to throw the charges out.

A federal grand jury indicted Tia Deyon Pugh in June after Mobile police had arrested her on allegations that she smashed the window of an unoccupied police SUV during a protest in downtown Mobile on May 31.

The defense has argued that “seldom-invoked” statute exceeds the federal government’s authority under the Commerce Clause by intruding on purely local matters that have noting to do with cross-state commerce.

“They’ve over-federalized a local act,” defense attorney Gordon Armstrong told FOX10 News.

Armstrong said prosecutors seem to have singled out his client.

“This is the very first time this statute has been charged in this district,” he said. “They picked now.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher Bodnar countered in a written response to the court that there have been relatively few civil disturbances in the United States of the type that occurred last summer since the law passed in 1968. Therefore, he wrote, it is not surprisingly that the law has been used only sparingly.

Bodnar pointed out that federal prosecutors have charged other people across the country under the statute in the aftermath of summer rioting and again after the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol. More than 80 people from that event have been charged under that same statute. The prosecutor wrote that there is a good reason why none of the other people who participated in the May 31 protest near the on-ramp to Interstate 10 on Water Street have been indicted on federal charges.

“This is because Pugh, through her violent actions, intentionally obstructed, interfered with, and impeded the Mobile Police Department’s ability to quell the dangerous civil disorder occurring on the on-ramp,” he wrote.

The protest came amid a politically charged atmosphere, during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic and just six days after the death of George Floyd during an encounter with a Minneapolis police officer. That death sparked demonstrations all across the country, including the one in Mobile to protest police brutality.

On that day, a group of about 100 demonstrators broke off from the larger protest and headed toward the I-10 on-ramp on Water Street. Prosecutors contend that the protesters endangered people’s lives when they pushed toward the interstate.

The prosecution filing cites Pugh’s comments during an interview recorded by law enforcement authorities after her arrest. She told officers that she believed it was a legitimate means of protest to occupy an interstate highway.

“It’s happened in 30 plus states, a majority of America,” she said, according to the court document. “Everyone has gotten on the Interstate. It’s no different here. We were attacked first, and I was getting my people out of there.”

Pugh also acknowledged that she intended for others to follow her lead when she smashed the police vehicle window with a metal bat, according to the court filing.

“I escalated, personally on my own,” the court document quotes her as telling investigators. “And no one followed behind me, which they were supposed to do.”

Armstrong also maintains in his written arguments that the law is overly broad and violates the First Amendment, as well as the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee of due process.

The defense filing also attacks the origins of the law and one of its primary proponents, then-Sen. Russell Long of Louisiana. The filing states that Long’s aim in proposing similar legislation in a stand-alone bill was to silence civil rights demonstrators during the 1960s.

The prosecution argues the legislative history of the law is irrelevant and that, in any case, the defense claims are “cherry picked misrepresentations” of how the law passed. The prosecution response notes that Long’s comments were about an earlier bill he had sponsored, not the provision that ultimately passed as part of more comprehensive legislation.

And Long voted against that bill, while a bipartisan coalition of civil rights supporters backed it, Bodnar notes.

The prosecution also contends that Armstrong’s constitutional objections to the law are without merit.

The decision now falls to U.S. District Judge Terry Moorer. There is no indication of when he might rule or if he will hold a hearing first.

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