Aggressive prosecution of Capitol rioters could have unintended consequences for civil rights protesters

The Justice Department has been swift to move against the pro-Trump rioters who broke into the U.S. Capitol on January 6 and attacked police officers, with devastating consequences for some far-right groups.

But, wrote David Lurie for The Daily Beast, there are also some problems with one law the federal prosecutors are using to bust the Capitol rioters — and there could be problematic implications for civil rights protesters.

"On May 18, Tia Deyon Pugh was found guilty of a felony in a federal court for breaking the window of an unoccupied police car during a Mobile, Alabama, protest held in the wake of George Floyd's murder last summer," wrote Lurie. "Pugh's conduct amounted, at most, to a misdemeanor under municipal law; but she was convicted under an, until recently, rarely invoked, and segregationist-inspired, law making it a federal crime to 'interfere' with a police officer during a 'civil disorder.' Even the jury that convicted Pugh, a Black woman, seems to have recognized that she was overcharged, and implored the judge to 'show compassion regarding sentencing.'"

This law, Lurie wrote, is the same one that motivated the DOJ to snatch up Portland protesters in unmarked vans last year. But it is also being used to go after many of the Capitol rioters — which may be why the DOJ under Attorney General Merrick Garland hasn't backed off the prosecutions like Pugh's, pursued by the previous administration.

"There are good reasons for questioning the DOJ's use of the vague 1968 anti-riot laws against any defendants, regardless of their ideologies or conduct," wrote Lurie. "Anyone who engaged in violent or otherwise serious misconduct on Jan. 6 (as well as during any of the protests last summer) almost certainly violated other criminal laws that provide sufficient bases for appropriately serious charges. Accordingly, there is no need for the DOJ under Merrick Garland to follow Barr's strategy of resuscitating tainted, segregationist-inspired laws."

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