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Cleveland Judges and Lawyers Readying for a Busy Republican Convention

Police on horseback observe Trump supporters leaving a rally in Cleveland. (Nick Castele / ideastream)
Police on horseback observe Trump supporters leaving a rally in Cleveland.

by Nick Castele

Politicians and reporters aren’t the only ones preparing for this summer’s Republican National Convention. Attorneys and judges expect to be busy that week, too, as they represent and process demonstrators who may be passing through local courtrooms.

Observing the Police

When protesters marched through Cleveland after the acquittal of police officer Michael Brelo last year, another group was close by, watching the action. They call themselves legal observers. They walk through demonstrations wearing neon green baseball caps, and take note of how police interact with protesters.

“If you see, for example, an arrest occurring: Was there a dispersal order given to the crowd before that arrest happened?” said Jacqueline Greene, a local attorney who coordinates the Ohio chapter of the National Lawyers’ Guild. “We would document what type of dispersal order was given, if any, the wording used, how many times it was stated to the crowd, was it audible to everybody.”

Greene is planning training sessions for attorneys, law students, activists and others who want to take part during this year’s RNC.

“Anybody can be a legal observer. There’s kind of a common assumption that you have to be a lawyer. That’s not true,” she said. “We do not train members of law enforcement, but beyond that you are welcome to come and train with us.”

The information that observers gather might end up in civil cases, or in service of defending people arrested while protesting.

“We also teach documentation techniques in terms of how to take photos or video, or things along those lines,” she said, “and we also teach people how to recognize which different law enforcement agencies may be present.”

They collect names and badge numbers of officers in the field, and they’re warned that being a legal observer is no sure safeguard against arrest. They’re planning to ride bicycles around the convention area, and those with cameras will focus not on protesters, but on police. They know that officers will be filming right back.

Police recorded video of a mass arrest made during last year’s demonstrations. Law enforcement officers are heard chanting, “Move back,” as they advance toward protesters and a legal observer in an alley.

Cleveland held people in jail from Saturday night, through Sunday and into Monday morning. The city faced a lawsuit last year, and agreed to new mass arrest and dispersal procedures.

Courts Readying to Stay Open 24 Hours a Day

Cleveland Municipal Judge Ronald Adrine said police have committed to process people more quickly this summer. He said he’s hoping it’ll take about 10 to 12 hours from arrest to first court appearance.

“I just want them to recognize that people do have a constitutional right under the First Amendment to peaceful assembly and to speech,” Adrine said, “and to give them the greatest possible latitude to exercise those constitutional rights.”

But he said police will arrest people who cross the line. 

“And from what I get from the police department, crossing the line primarily will involve individuals who have broken something or broken somebody,” he said.

Adrine said judges have cleared their schedules from prior cases for the week, so they can focus on new arrests that happen during those days in July. 

“We’re gearing up to try to be able to handle as many as 1,000 people a day coming through our doors,” he said. “We’re hoping we don’t have to do that, but we will be running court 24 hours a day for the four days that the convention will be in Cleveland.”

They’ll be processing arrested protesters, as well as the gamut of arrests police usually bring in each day. If the charges aren’t serious, defendants could be out on what’s called a personal bond—meaning they can leave jail without having to pay.

Greene said the National Lawyers Guild will try to stay in touch with people in jail.

“We have a hotline people can call,” she said. “And they can report to us where they’re being held, they can report, for example, if they are injured. If they need someone to let their family know that they’re safe, we can do things like that.”

Attorneys, including James Hardiman of the NAACP, will be on call to give arrested demonstrators representation in court. While some may plead to resolve their cases quickly, he said, others could spend weeks in court fighting their charges.

“It’s almost a guarantee that some of the legal work will last past the RNC,” Hardiman said, “and past the time that all of the Republicans have packed their bags.”

Nick Castele was a senior reporter covering politics and government for Ideastream Public Media. He worked as a reporter for Ideastream from 2012-2022.