WASHINGTON – In a memo to U.S. attorneys Thursday obtained by The Associated Press, the Justice Department emphasized that federal prosecutors should aggressively go after demonstrators who cause violence — and even sedition charges could potentially apply.
The sedition statute doesn't require proof of a plot to overthrow the government, the memo read. It instead could be used when a defendant tries to oppose the government’s authority by force.
Attorney General William Barr has been pushing his U.S. attorneys to bring federal charges in protest-related violence whenever they can, keeping a grip on cases even if a defendant could be tried instead in state court. Federal convictions often result in longer prison sentences; sedition alone could lead to up to 20 years behind bars.
The memo cited as a hypothetical example “a group has conspired to take a federal courthouse or other federal property by force,” but the real thing took place in Portland, Oregon, during clashes that erupted night after night between law enforcement and demonstrators.
Justice officials also explored whether it could pursue either criminal or civil rights charges against city officials there, spokeswoman Kerri Kupec told The AP. She would not say whether charges were still being considered.
The Trump administration’s crackdown on protest violence has already led to more than 300 arrests on federal crimes in the protests since the death of George Floyd. An AP analysis of the data shows that while many people are accused of violent crimes such as arson for hurling Molotov cocktails and burning police cars and assault for injuring law enforcement, others are not. That's led to criticism that at least some arrests are a politically motivated effort to stymie demonstrations.
“The speed at which this whole thing was moved from state court to federal court is stunning and unbelievable,” said Charles Sunwabe, who represents an Erie, Pennsylvania, man accused of lighting a fire at a coffee shop after a May 30 protest. “It’s an attempt to intimidate these demonstrators and to silence them,” he said.
Some cases are viewed as trumped-up and should not be in federal court, lawyers say, including a teenager accused of civil disorder for claiming online “we are not each other’s enemy, only enemy is 12,” a reference to law enforcement.