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Tampa protesters poised for trial as unlawful assembly charges are dropped

Defense attorneys argue that police used excessive force when they broke up the July 4, 2020, demonstration.
Police use pepper spray as they detain protesters during a march on N Dale Mabry on Saturday, July 4, 2020, in Tampa.
Police use pepper spray as they detain protesters during a march on N Dale Mabry on Saturday, July 4, 2020, in Tampa. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Sep. 28
Updated Sep. 29

TAMPA — Attorneys for two people who were arrested during a Fourth of July protest last year scored a small victory Tuesday when a judge granted their request to dismiss unlawful assembly charges.

With prosecutors standing silent, Hillsborough Circuit Judge Mark Kiser heeded defense arguments that the charge was a civil matter, not a criminal offense. But a trial still looms on other alleged crimes that include battery against police and resisting arrest.

Addressing a prosecutor’s request to bar certain matters from the trial, including “the right to free speech,” and the constitutionality of the protest, the judge imposed no broad restrictions on those subjects.

“That’s general public knowledge,” the judge said. “All that’s fine to set context.”

But he acknowledged Assistant State Attorney Danielle Villamil’s concern that complicated constitutional matters should not become a feature of the trial.

Jamie Bullock and Chukwudi Uche were among seven people arrested during the 2020 protest, spurred by the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis cops. More than 100 people participated in the demonstration, which blocked traffic on N Dale Mabry Highway for more than an hour. As the crowd marched north, a legion of officers intervened, confronting the crowd’s front line and deploying pepper spray amid the ensuing melee.

Several of those arrested saw their charges dropped or took plea deals to reduced charges. Only Bullock and Uche remain charged.

The three-hour hearing gave a glimpse of a defense strategy: arguments that protesters were justified in using force in response to what they viewed as excessive force by police. Defense attorneys suggested that police sought to break up the protest because they took offense to the group’s anti-police message.

“The issue is they were out there protesting and law enforcement used excessive force in trying to quell the protest,” attorney Michelle Lambo said.

Related: A Tampa protest trial: Was it free speech or was it a crime?

Bullock is accused of striking an officer as police moved to arrest several people in the crowd.

On Tuesday, the state made an offer to drop a charge of battery on a law enforcement officer, a felony, and agree to a time-served sentence if Bullock pleaded guilty to resisting arrest, a misdemeanor. She rejected it.

Prosecutors have accused Uche of throwing a water bottle, which struck another officer’s chest, before fleeing to the backseat of a nearby car. After he was detained, police said they found a backpack with a gun inside in the car’s rear seat. He faces a charge of carrying a concealed firearm, a felony.

Uche also rejected a plea offer that would have carried 18 months of probation.

Bullock and Uche are set to go to trial next week.

Their supporters trooped to Judge Kiser’s courtroom and sat quietly as attorneys argued over which videos and pictures depicting the protest could be seen by a jury. Judge Kiser appeared inclined to allow images and video clips that depict the defendants and their interaction with police officers, or those which the defense said showed their vantage point at the time police made the arrest. Others he excluded as being irrelevant.

A crowd assembled before the hearing near the Lady Justice statue in front of the George Edgecomb Courthouse. They toted signs reading “Drop Jamie Bullock’s charges. Protesting is not a crime!” Some made speeches between chants of “Justice for Jamie.”