Prosecutors have dropped charges against several dozen demonstrators who were arrested in the first days of the ongoing protests against racism and police brutality.
The Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney’s Office filed noticed on July 17 indicating it would not pursue misdemeanor charges of unlawful assembly against 35 protesters arrested from June 1-5 outside St. Petersburg Police Department headquarters, according to court records.
St. Petersburg police officers and Pinellas deputies wrote in arrest reports that the gatherings got out of hand and that demonstrators ignored commands to leave the area. But many protesters have said it was a small group of outsiders who set off fireworks and threw objects at officers, and that police didn’t give them enough time or space to disperse.
“These were people that were just simply exercising their First Amendment rights,” said Bruce Denson, a St. Petersburg lawyer who represented seven arrested demonstrators pro bono.
Chief Assistant State Attorney Bruce Bartlett said the arrests served their purpose at the time of dispersing the crowd, but there is no longer a need to prosecute. However, he said the cases against a handful of protesters who face more serious charges will continue.
“Although I have no issue whatsoever with the arrests, I think that the arrest circumstances took care of the assembly issues and it accomplished what was done,” he said. “There would be nothing really gained by going forward and prosecuting further.”
The St. Petersburg Police Department gave this response: “We make our arrests,” said spokeswoman Sandra Bentil. “The state attorney takes that and chooses to move forward with them or not move forward with them.”
Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said he stands by his agency’s arrests and that prosecutors base decisions on different criteria than that used by the arresting deputies.
Kelsey Jagneaux, 27, said she’d been marching with the main protest group since about 4 p.m. on June 2. The demonstrations had been peaceful, she said, aside from a smaller group setting off fireworks. Jagneaux said that group wasn’t affiliated with the larger group of protesters.
That night, after a moment of silence outside the police department, Jagneaux decided to head out. As she was walking away, she heard flash bangs and saw people starting to run. She wasn’t sure why — she didn’t hear the order from police to leave the area.
She walked toward her car, she said, which was parked on Central Avenue near Ferg’s Sports Bar, a couple blocks south of the police station at 1301 First Ave. N. Then, she said, she and another protester whose car was also parked near Ferg’s were stopped by a line of Pinellas deputies in riot gear. Jagneaux asked if she could keep going to get to her car. The deputies told her no and to leave the area.
As they were walking away, Jagneaux heard one of the deputies tell the others to start marching in the same direction. Jagneaux and the other protester, who she said was also a woman, ran into St. Petersburg police officers and explained that they didn’t feel safe walking around alone at night and needed to get to their cars. The officers echoed the deputies’ commands to leave the area.
Then the deputies caught up with them, she said, and placed them under arrest.
“It was sort of like being set up for failure,” said Jagneaux, of St. Petersburg. “We were a bit trapped in that situation. There were few other options than the outcome that happened.”
Jagneaux was taken to the Pinellas County jail. She was held overnight without bail as part of an unusual agreement between the sheriff and Pinellas-Pasco Chief Judge Anthony Rondolino to hold protesters until they went before a judge the next morning.
That further concerned Jagneaux, who said she didn’t see any social distancing measures inside the jail, despite the COVID-19 pandemic. At the time of her arrest, the county jail didn’t have any known cases of the novel coronavirus but has since reported that several inmates and staff members have tested positive.
Trevor Ford, 30, of St. Petersburg, also disputes the circumstances of his arrest. He was taken into custody soon after Jagneaux.
After hanging out with family downtown, Ford said he went to the police department to check out the protest. When he arrived, no one was there. As he was trying to figure out what was going on, he saw people running down Central Avenue and police in riot gear.
He heard one of them say “Get ‘em,” Ford said, and he started to run back to his car. A cruiser pulled up and an officer arrested him on an unlawful assembly charge, Ford said.
Later, he saw a video of the events that he’d missed — the fireworks, the flash bangs, the commands to leave.
“But I didn’t know that,” Ford said. “I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”