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Rolly: LGBT protesters will get day in court after legislators flee

Published March 11, 2014 4:26 pm

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This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Remember a month ago when 13 citizens were arrested after blocking a legislative hearing room to protest the Legislature's inaction on a bill to protect gays and lesbians from housing and job discrimination?

Here is the rest of the story.

Before they were arrested, a legislative attorney cited to them a number of laws pertaining to their peaceful demonstration and suggested they could be charged with a felony.

Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden, who recently suggested people of religious convictions and the LGBT community cannot coexist, walked by and sniffed at them as Cardinal Wolsey might have done to the chattel congregating outside the castle.

The Utah Highway Patrol officers who arrested them were professional and courteous and did their job in the most respectful way possible, said Donna Weinholtz, a community activist who was one of those arrested.

Then they were taken to the Salt Lake County Jail. The behavior there, as described by Weinholtz, is consistent with what I've heard about the jailers in that facility before.

"SIT DOWN!" SHUT UP!" "F-YOU!"

Those are some of the phrases Weinholtz remembers hearing from the jailers as the protesters were strip searched and held for six hours.

Weinholtz noticed similar barbaric antics shown to others who were being processed in the jail, many of whom showed no signs of violent or aggressive behavior and were in various stages of intoxication or appeared to have mental-health issues.

That was on Feb. 10. When the protesters were finally released on their own recognizance, they were ordered by jail personnel to appear in Salt Lake City Justice Court the morning of Feb. 24. If they did not show up for the arraignment, they were told, a warrant would be issued for their arrest.

But when they appeared in court — two weeks after their arrests — they learned that no charges had been filed from the Salt Lake City Prosecutor's Office. One of the protesters had canceled an appointment for a medical procedure to make the court date. Another came home early from a vacation. They all cooled their heels for more than an hour before Justice Court Judge John Baxter came into court and said that because there was no paperwork from the prosecutor, there was nothing he could do. They would be notified later about an arraignment date.

With the Legislature set to adjourn this week, it's convenient that no charges have emerged from the original arrest warrants on disturbing the peace, a class C misdemeanor and interrupting the Legislature, a class B misdemeanor.

An arraignment hearing would mean more publicity about why they conducted a sit-in at the Capitol in the first place: because the Legislature refused to hold a hearing on Sen. Steve Urquhart's SB100 and legislative leaders refused to meet with them.

It also could trigger more protests at the Capitol with lawmakers in session.

"These were nonviolent protesters wanting to meet with their legislators. This is what the First Amendment is all about," said Ron Yengich, one of Utah's most prominent defense attorneys and one of four lawyers who have decided to take on the cases of the "Capitol 13" pro bono.

The other attorneys are Danielle Hawkes, Chris Wharton and Jesse Nix, who all told me they are doing it because they believe in the cause and standing up for the First Amendment.

"These [protesters] should be treated with equality and respect by the courts and by the Legislature," Yengich said. "The Legislature doesn't want to hear what these people have to say and made a point of not talking to them.

"But if enough money is involved [the Legislature] would let them talk until they were blue in the face."

Access, added Yengich, is driven by money.

Or, perhaps if they had been carrying their concealed weapons and standing up for their Second Amendment rights instead of their First Amendment rights, they would have been treated with more deference.

prolly@sltrib.com