PART TWO: Lawful Protest and Unlawful Assembly

by | Jun 12, 2020 | Criminal Defense

By Matthew S. Dearth, Esq.

In our previous article, we discussed lawful protest, unlawful assembly, and riot in North Dakota. Here, we examine the difference between North Dakota’s laws governing riot, and the laws of Minnesota.

Unlawful Assembly in Minnesota

Minnesota laws governing unlawful assembly are significantly different from North Dakota. While Minnesota also has a disorderly conduct statute, state and local officials often cite protesters with the crimes of Public Nuisance and Unlawful Assembly, when making arrests in connection with a disruptive demonstration.

In Minnesota, a person can be charged with the crime of Public Nuisance if, “by an act or failure to perform a legal duty” they intentionally do any of the following: (1) “maintain or permit a condition which unreasonably annoys, injures or endangers the safety, health, morals, comfort, or repose of any considerable number of members of the public,” (2) “interfere with, obstruct, or render dangerous for passage, any public highway or right-of-way, or waters used by the public,” or (3) “are guilty of any other act or omission declared by law to be a public nuisance and for which no sentence is specifically provided.” Public Nuisance is a misdemeanor, carrying a maximum jail penalty of 90 days. The law criminalizes a wide variety of conduct, including blocking traffic on roads, preventing access to private businesses or public buildings, or acting in a manner that, while not physically disruptive, has a disruptive effect on others.

The law governing Unlawful Assembly is slightly more complicated. When three or more persons assemble (1) “with intent to commit any unlawful act by force,” (2) “with intent to carry out any purpose in such manner as will disturb or threaten the public peace.” or (3) “with a lawful purpose, but the participants conduct themselves in a disorderly manner as to disturb or threaten the public peace,” each participant can be charged with Unlawful Assembly, a misdemeanor carrying a maximum penalty of 90 days. Under the third prong of the statute, a person who is present at an assembly and otherwise not violating the law may still be charged with Unlawful Assembly if others begin to violate the law as described above.

At this point, law enforcement have the authority to declare the assembly unlawful and order protesters to disperse. This will usually be announced to the public via PA system or loud speaker, and will include details as to how much time participants have to disperse, and what exit route participants may follow. Whoever without lawful purpose is present at the place of an unlawful assembly and refuses to leave when so directed by a law enforcement officer is guilty of a misdemeanor. Again, this means that you can be arrested for Unlawful Assembly simply for refusing to leave the area when ordered to do so.

Minnesota’s laws on Riot govern the most violent conduct. When three or more persons assemble and disturb the public peace “by an intentional act or threat of unlawful force,” or “violence to person or property,” each participant can be charged with Riot in the Third Degree, a gross misdemeanor with a maximum penalty of one year in jail and a $1,000 fine. The penalty increases to a felony (Second Degree Riot) if a person possesses a dangerous weapon, or knows that another person in the assembly is armed with a dangerous weapon.  This is important to know, because “dangerous weapon” includes any device or instrumentality that, in the manner it is used or intended to be used, is calculated or likely to produce death or great bodily harm. This means baseball bats, bricks, bottles, and especially Molotov Cocktails, may be considered dangerous weapons depending on the circumstances.

If you have been arrested in connection with a protest or demonstration, it is important to seek legal advice right away. Experienced attorneys will be able to spot legal defenses, constitutional issues, and mitigating circumstances, if any exist in your case.

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