People facing criminal charges for demonstrating are being offered pro-bono legal aid from a Pensacola law firm.
Eric Stevenson and Chris Klotz of Stevenson Klotz are among a number of attorneys in Florida who are volunteering time to protect citizens’ rights for peaceful assembly, in connection with protests over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, as well as other instances of police misconduct nationwide.
“Chris and I both agree — as did other member of the Society of Criminal Defense Bar — to help out protesters,” said Stevenson. “Somebody wind up in jail in the middle of the night, needing to talk to a lawyer about bond issues, or when they’re going to have first [court] appearances. We agreed to help out with that.”
The Society is an association of local criminal defense attorneys who meet frequently to discuss legal matters. They received a request for volunteers to represent protesters who were arrested simply for exercising their First Amendment rights.
“The Public Defender’s Office is really not equipped to be able to help out in situations like that, until somebody’s actually in jail and is looking at an appearance,” Stevenson said. “So, if somebody’s looking at trying to get out on bond, there’s [sic] some pressing concerns and we agreed to help out.”
Two of the leading issues are the First Amendment, and Miranda – the latter the right to remain silent and the right to legal counsel.
“Many times in a situation like this the police aren’t really bringing in people for questioning, like they might if it was some other kind of investigation,” said Stevenson. “So, the most pressing concern is for people to feel comfortable that if they’re first Amendment rights, that they would have access to counsel if they needed it.”
Whether the clients are accused of non-violent – or even violent – acts during a protest isn’t really an issue according to Stevenson – who says as with any defense counsel, they don’t get to choose what actions their clients took.
“We agreed to help out anybody who got arrested, at least as far as getting through the initial phases of getting bond and all that sort of thing,” Stevenson said. “And then if they needed further representation then we would evaluate it from there.”
Stevenson is already representing the Black Lives Matter protester who was carried across the Bay Bridge on the hood of a vehicle, after a motorist drove through a line of people in early June. The impromptu rider — identified as Jason Uphaus — dismounted in Gulf Breeze with what he said were only minor injuries.
“The Constitution’s supposed to work, no matter if your cause is popular or unpopular,” said Stevenson. “So, we’re willing to take whatever pressure we might get, as long as we’re seeking justice for our clients.”
On Thursday, Pensacola Police announced that Uphaus, 36, was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct and criminal mischief. The driver of the SUV was not charged.