Criminal charges against more than two dozen demonstrators arrested last summer in Beverly Hills must be tossed out because an emergency ordinance the city used to arrest the protesters is unconstitutional, a judge ruled Friday.
The wealthy enclave city set amid Los Angeles took an unusually aggressive posture toward protesters who were part of mass demonstrations that took place across the region and country against the killings by police of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
As many of the county’s top law enforcement officials, including then-Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey and Los Angeles City Atty. Mike Feuer, vowed not to prosecute thousands of peaceful demonstrators who police cited for curfew violations or other minor violations, Beverly Hills officials pressed ahead with cases to the puzzlement of civil liberties advocates.
The city intended to prosecute the demonstrators under an emergency ordinance its city council passed to “preserve the peace and tranquility of residential neighborhoods.” The measure barred loud gatherings of more than 10 people after 9 p.m. in residential areas.
L.A. County Superior Court Judge Mark Windham found the ordinance was overly broad, writing in a nine-page ruling that a city requiring silence in residential areas violated people’s right to free speech.
“ Beverly Hills cannot prohibit legitimately targeted disturbances with a measure that equally prohibits innocent protected expression,” he wrote.
If convicted under the ordinance, demonstrators faced up to six months in jail. Friday’s ruling was met with relief by attorneys affiliated with the National Lawyers’ Guild, many of whom volunteered to defend clients in the case.
“Today’s ruling was the result of a tremendous group effort of dedicated volunteer attorneys who were collectively dumbfounded and deeply concerned by the Beverly Hills ordinance,” said attorney Jerod Gunsberg. “A law requiring silence from any public gathering of 10 or more people is absurd and unconstitutional on its face.”
A spokesman for the Beverly Hills Police Department did not respond to a request for comment.
The June 26 demonstration was organized by a group called Black Future Project and drew about 75 people to Beverly Hills. Although the demonstration was calm compared with protests in Los Angeles earlier that month, some of which devolved into vandalism and theft, Beverly Hills police still arrested 28 people, almost all for violation of the ordinance. One man was also accused of arson for burning an American flag.
Police initially planned to keep demonstrators in jail unless they posted $5,000 in bail — a hardball tactic decried by civil liberties advocates. Police later relented and released people on their own recognizance.