A 27-year-old Durham woman was found not guilty Wednesday of failure to disperse during a protest in Graham in November 2019 that centered on a detention agreement between the Alamance County sheriff’s office and the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
While the latest trial in Alamance County district court was seemingly unrelated to those dozens of arrests stemming from protests in downtown Graham in 2020, many rest on a now-repealed city of Graham ordinance that had required a permit to protest – including in traditionally “public forums” such as city sidewalks – and placed other limits on First Amendment rights. U.S. District Court judge Catherine Eagles declared the city’s former protest ordinance unconstitutional in August 2020.
Sarah Catherine Pederson, 27, white female, of 109 West Lavender Avenue in Durham, was arrested at a demonstration that drew several hundred people to downtown Graham on November 24, 2019 the Sunday before Thanksgiving.
Pederson’s attorney, Scott Holmes of the Lockamy Law firm in Durham, said the 2019 protest had been organized by a “Jewish organization called Never Again Action,” which he described as a reference to the Holocaust. Over the course of several hours, protesters heard speeches, music, and displayed signs intended to convey that these “immigration policies you have here are inhumane,” the defense attorney outlined in his opening statement Wednesday morning.
Never Again Action (NAA) claims eliminating ICE as its sole mission, according to the organization’s website and social media accounts.
Police officers and sheriff’s deputies created formations that blocked protesters from using sidewalks leading south along Maple Street, as well as another sidewalk leading from McAden to South Main Street, the group “set up in the middle of the road” and continued to protest for at least 20 minutes, Holmes said at the outset of Pederson’s trial.
Graham police officers formed a line along South Maple Street, near the Center for Spiritual Living at 309 South Maple Street, where protesters had been given permission to park, Alamance County sheriff’s deputy Alex Frye recalled on the witness stand Wednesday morning. Sheriff’s deputies fell in behind the Graham police officers to create a second line that ringed the protesters and, in effect, blocked them from the sidewalk at the intersection of South Maple with West Pine Street, near the Alamance County jail, Frye testified.
The Graham police officers and sheriff’s deputies had, in fact, formed “a line from sidewalk to sidewalk” on both sides of South Maple Street, Frye testifiedWednesday under direct examination by Alamance County assistant district attorney Kevin Harrison, who has been assigned to prosecute the 2020 protest trials, as well as Pederson’s trial.
But that was not the intended purpose, Frye testified. Instead, Alamance County sheriff’s deputies had been asked to provide backup for the Graham police department to prevent protesters from violating a city protest ordinance that had been in place at the time.
The November 2019 protest was declared an unlawful gathering because the organizers had failed to obtain a permit, as required under Graham’s former ordinance, the deputy elaborated Wednesday morning. “We were informed they had not obtained the correct permits through the city so they would not be allowed to hold a gathering of this size,” the deputy recalled. “I believe the goal stated by Graham [police department officials] was they were going to leave roadways available for traffic and the sidewalks for the public.”
‘They could not even walk on the sidewalks?’
“Were you told they could not even walk on the sidewalks?” retired visiting district court judge Lunsford Long, III of Orange County asked Frye, before also asking whether it was the same ordinance at issue in another case he heard this spring.
“We were told the city had an ordinance that would prohibit the size of the gathering and the use of signs,” the deputy responded, adding that the group was advised that it was an unlawful gathering before the dispersal order was given. Pederson initially complied by returning to the property where the Center for Spiritual Living is located, but she returned and was arrested, Frye recalled during his testimony.
“I was one of the lawyers in the case that found the ordinance unconstitutional,” Holmes told the judge near the conclusion of Pederson’s trial.
Holmes contended that his client’s actions that day didn’t fit the statutory elements of the charge. Pederson was on private property and “was compliant” with the dispersal command, Holmes argued, adding that there was actual violence or threat of violence, as required under state law.
Pre-existing order to disperse?
The defense attorney also pressed Frye for details he’d been given during a briefing with the Graham police department at 9:00 a.m. on the day of the protest. “There was an order to disperse the minute they got out there to the sidewalk – is that right?” Holmes asked Frye. “You could see them walking on the sidewalk; your goal at that point was to block this group from walking up the sidewalk.”
No, Frye insisted, the sheriff’s deputies were on scene to provide backup for Graham police, if needed, and to prevent violations of the city’s ordinance.
“You understand that sidewalks are the place to protest?” Holmes countered, referring to First Amendment case law that has long-established sidewalks, parks, and other public areas as “traditional public forums,” in which any regulation of speech must be content-neutral and subject only to “reasonable” time, place, and manner restrictions.
“Except in Graham in 2019,” Long interjected. He acknowledged that Frye and other law enforcement officers on duty that day were simply doing their jobs but nonetheless concluded that “nothing they did that day had any legal force in my mind.”
“I don’t believe this lady is guilty of anything, unless you have some more evidence,” Long told Harrison before allowing Holmes’ motion to dismiss the case.
City council adopts revised ordinance
Graham’s city council adopted a new protest ordinance earlier this year. The new ordinance requires advance notice to be given to the Graham police department for protests involving more than 100 people; if police/EMS personnel are requested; or events at which participants plan to erect a stage or use sound amplification equipment. The new ordinance requires no advance notice to be given for protests planned for the lawn in front of city hall at 201 South Main Street, which is now designated as a “permit-free zone.”
Several other cases that had been scheduled for trials on Wednesday will be rescheduled, Harrison said in open court Wednesday morning.
Carey Kirk Griffin, 39, white female, of 2117 East Main Street in Durham, also withdrew her plans to appeal her earlier convictions on two counts of resisting a public officer and second-degree trespassing. Long agreed to enter a prayer for judgment, as he’d offered at Griffin’s trial on May 26, and gave her 40 days to pay $183 in court costs.