Detroit Free Press
Protesters demonstrated in front of the Chelsea Police Department Friday, confronting Chief Edward Toth after he said the department will not dismiss charges against people who protested in the streets over the summer in a case that has divided the small town and has led to a constitutional court battle.
Toth said Friday that it is not within the Police Department’s authority to drop civil charges after they have been submitted to the court and that it is up to a judge to rule on the charges, which is scheduled to occur Monday. This follows a City Council meeting earlier this week in which the body voted unanimously to recommend that police drop pending charges against protesters for impeding traffic.
“If I stopped you for a traffic violation, the discretion is used at that point, not once it’s in the court system,” Toth said. “That’s what the court systems are for. Courts are adjudicated with a judge. … The police are the finders of facts and we submit them to the court.”
But attorney Linda Bernard — a civil and criminal lawyer who has argued cases in the U.S. Supreme Court and is a member of the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners — disagreed.
“He absolutely has the authority to dismiss the citations,” she said. “He just has to say they were issued in error. He has the legal authority to withdraw or reject anything that’s issued by any member of his department.”
Clarence Dass, a former Oakland County prosecuting attorney who now owns a law firm, said: “If police don’t wish to prosecute, then prosecutors generally don’t wish to prosecute. It may be, in this case, that he wants to shift responsibility and cop out.”
Chelsea police issued 47 civil infractions to 29 people, seven of whom are minors, according to department statistics released Friday. All residents ticketed were members or supporters of youth-led racial justice advocacy group Anti-Racist Chelsea Youth, or ARCY, Toth said. The tickets carry a $180 fine.
Toth, in his first interview with the Free Press Friday, said that following three alleged assaults surrounding protests over the summer, and with high vehicular traffic on the street that protesters marched on, he told demonstrators beforehand they would be surveilled and sent tickets via mail if they went on the streets.
“If we had a child run over or killed, we’d have to live with that for the rest of our lives,” Toth said.
Some in Chelsea — which is west of Ann Arbor and has a population of more than 5,000 people, 95% of whom are white — don’t see it that way.
“It’s hard to watch Chief Toth cling to the rule of law. Law is meant to protect and organize us, but it’s still essentially just a tool, and when it’s wielded by people who want to do harm, that tool becomes a weapon,” said Katy Tinsley, who protested at the Chelsea Police Department Friday.
Chelsea protesters pointed out that demonstrators across the country exercised their First Amendment rights by protesting on the streets this summer, including in Detroit and Ann Arbor. They also highlighted that the city of Detroit dismissed charges against hundreds of protesters, many of whom violated curfew.
Protester Bill Ruddock questioned why Chelsea police aggressively issued tickets to ARCY protesters but, according to an investigation conducted by an independent law firm, didn’t issue citations to counterprotesters who organized a “Patriot Parade” in which, witnesses say, they obstructed traffic with their vehicles, revved their engines, screeched tires, honked, shouted and made gestures at ARCY protesters.
“They chose to get one group and not the other group,” Ruddock said. “They used their discretion inappropriately.”
American Civil Liberties Union and University of Michigan Law School attorneys argue that Chelsea police “illegally infringed on (defendants’) constitutionally protected right to engage in core political speech in the public spaces where the exchange of ideas is to be most open,” according to court documents.
Toth said although the department won’t drop charges, it isn’t pursuing any new charges against protesters.
A judge is scheduled to rule on the citations on Monday at 14A-3 District Court.
Mayor Melissa Johnson declined to comment via email Friday except to say, “The City is in uncharted territory.”
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