Some innocent observers, including two journalists, were improperly swept up in a group of 230 people arrested after self-described anti-capitalists began breaking windows in Washington on Inauguration Day, lawyers said.
The group was charged Saturday with felony rioting, punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $25,000.
Protesters smashed the windows of an emergency vehicle as well as windows at a Starbucks and two banks and set fire to a limousine, court documents said. The total damage done by the anarchist group was over $100,000, court documents said.
City law says that if, in the course of a riot, a person is seriously injured or there is property damage of more than $5,000 "every person who willfully incited or urged others to engage in the riot" can be charged with felony rioting.
But on Sunday, Mark Goldstone, a lawyer representing about 50 of those arrested, said police "basically identified a location that had problems and arrested everyone in that location." He said there were not 230 people engaged in conduct that merited a felony rioting charge and called the charges an overreach.
"They arrested everyone in a single location including reporters, lawyers, law students, and non-riotous protesters," Goldstone said.
Police did not immediately respond Sunday to a request for comment by The Associated Press. But interim Police Chief Peter Newsham told radio station WTOP on Sunday that he was "very, very pleased" with the way police responded to demonstrations Friday, saying they only used force when necessary to control aggressive crowds. Police have said they used pepper spray and rubber "sting balls" to control the crowd where arrests were made. Newsham noted that some demonstrators threw rocks and bricks at officers.
Goldstone, the attorney, said that police have to make reasonable attempts to identify individual lawbreakers, not just arrest a group. One of those arrested Friday was wearing a T-shirt identifying him as a legal observer, someone who is there to observe and report on the activities of the police and demonstrators, Goldstone said.
And Jeffrey Light, who filed a federal lawsuit Friday over the arrests, wrote that many who were arrested were "peacefully protesting." He said Sunday the lead plaintiff in his class action lawsuit, an attorney from Colorado, was wearing a green hat identifying him as a legal observer. Light says he believes felony charges were an attempt by prosecutors to get leverage for plea bargains on lesser, misdemeanor offenses.
In addition, two of the people arrested say they were working as journalists when arrested. One, who works for New York-based Vocativ, was filming for his job when he was arrested, said his attorney Kathryn Ruemmler. The other, Alexander Rubinstein, said in a Periscope video of the day that he was reporting for RT America.
"Again, I am media and I am not a protester," Rubinstein said in the video, later tweeting that he had been blinded by a flash grenade and police encircled the crowd when he couldn't see. Like many of the demonstrators, he appeared to be wearing black.
According to a review of court paperwork by The Associated Press, the average age of those arrested Friday was 27, though three were over 55. About a third were women.