Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel is prosecuting people for exercising their First Amendment rights by charging protesters with serious felony offenses aimed at suppressing the movement against police violence. It is blatant overreach and she must answer for it.
When protests against police violence erupted in Phoenix following the police killings of George Floyd and Dion Johnson, Phoenix Police were caught violating civil rights en masse by sweeping up protestors and throwing them in jail without probable cause. At the time, Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel defended the department’s unlawful use of copy-and-paste probable cause statements calling it an “efficient” way of doing police business.
Months later protests continue and people continue to be arrested and prosecuted on trumped up charges. Adel’s most recent flagrant abuse of power happened Friday when a top prosecutor in her office, April Sponsel, charged protestors with criminal street gang crimes. According to an ABC 15 report, Sponsel’s evidence of “gang affiliation” was that the protesters dressed in black, carried umbrellas, and used the common phrase “all cops are bastards.”
Community organizations like Mass Liberation Arizona, The People’s Law Firm, and Black Phoenix Organizing Collective have been sounding alarms about these troubling arrests and prosecutions taking place in Maricopa County. They are increasingly concerned that these political prosecutions are similar to those seen in authoritarian regimes that seek to silence, intimidate, and disappear critics and rivals.
Many of these false charges are being levied against well-known community activists that are surveilled and targeted beforehand by the Arizona Counter-Terrorism Institute, which is handing over social media intelligence to the Phoenix Police Department to help identify leaders and aid in their criminal prosecutions.
For example, MCAO charged Jamaar Williams, an organizer for Black Lives Matter-Phx Metro and a movement lawyer with two counts of aggravated assault on a police officer in July. A judge tossed the case after reviewing cell phone video that exonerated Williams and proved police lied about the assaults.
More recently, MCAO charged Bruce Franks, Jr., a nationally-known Black Lives Matter activist, with numerous felonies related to a protest he attended in Phoenix. The charges are pending, but Franks’ attorney told media that video footage shows it was police—not Franks—who escalated tensions and that video footage would exonerate his client.
Prosecutors have an ethical duty to refrain from prosecuting a charge that the prosecutor knows is not supported by probable cause. Moreover, prosecutors should dismiss charges they believe cannot be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. In fact, Adel said this herself when explaining why she would not charge the DPS trooper who killed Dion Johnson, claiming that prosecutors in her office had to weigh whether the trooper’s guilt could be proven beyond a reasonable doubt in court before they would even charge him with a crime. Yet when it comes to protesters who are exercising their First Amendment rights, Adel’s approach is markedly different. Adel's approach to protesters has been to charge now and ask questions later, ignoring her role as a minister of justice and her ethical duty to only pursue charges when there is probable cause. These divergent approaches by Adel should concern anyone who values fundamental rights, like freedom of speech, and the rule of law.
Baseless arrests and prosecutions simply cannot be tolerated in a free society. This is particularly true when such arrests and prosecutions have the effect of chilling the constitutional rights to speech and assembly.
A false arrest can have significant negative consequences, even if the charges are later dismissed. Just a short time in jail can lead to the loss of a job, loss of housing, and even the loss of the custody of one’s kids. During a global pandemic, it also exposes people to a higher risk of contracting COVID-19.
The ACLU of Arizona stands in solidarity with Mass Liberation Arizona, The People’s Law Firm, Black Phoenix Organizing Collective and other community organizations in condemning the arrests and political prosecutions of protestors. We join them in calling on Allister Adel to stop prosecuting peaceful protestors and to dismiss all charges that remain.
Further, we call on Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego and the Phoenix City Council to rein in its police department by demanding they immediately cease arresting protesters with whom they disagree. Only then can the city ensure that people exercising their rights to free speech and assembly will be safe from baseless arrests and malicious prosecutions.