RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The top prosecutor in North Carolina's capital is dropping criminal charges against hundreds of people arrested at mass protests at the state legislature last year.
Wake County District Attorney Ned Mangum said Friday his move was prompted by a June 30 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court upholding the constitutional rights of people to peacefully assemble and protest government policies.
That federal decision, which struck down a Massachusetts law limiting protests outside abortion clinics, has since been cited by North Carolina judges in rulings in favor of Moral Monday protesters.
The demonstrators were arrested by General Assembly police while chanting civil rights slogans, singing hymns and holding signs. Nearly all were charged with second-degree trespassing, failure to disperse and violating legislative building rules, which are misdemeanors.
At their peak, the weekly events attracted thousands to downtown Raleigh to oppose a far-reaching conservative agenda enacted by Republican Gov. Pat McCrory and GOP lawmakers. Groups in other Southern states, including Georgia and South Carolina, have since launched similar protests.
Of the nearly 1,000 people arrested in 2013, about half resolved their cases by agreeing to do community service and pay a modest fee. Mangum's action dismisses almost all the remaining cases.
"You have classes in law school about what the First Amendment means, and it can get complicated," Mangum said. "In this instance, it has to do with the time, place and manner of restrictions and how police interact with individuals."
Mangum said cases against a few dozen 2013 protesters will remain active because they were arrested on a day when the General Assembly was supposed to be closed to the public. In a few other cases, protesters were arrested during sit-ins inside legislators' offices, which are considered private.
The Rev. William J. Barber II, president of the North Carolina branch of the NAACP and a leader of the protest movement, urged Mangum to dismiss those remaining cases, as well.
"We never went in to be arrested," said Barber, who was among the first handcuffed in 2013. "The General Assembly is the people's house. ... Rather than meet with us for a fair debate on the issues, they arrested us."
Spokespeople for North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate leader Phil Berger Sr. did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Tillis is now campaigning for the U.S. Senate seat held by Democrat Kay Hagan.
Prior to the 2014 legislative session, Republican lawmakers made numerous changes to the building rules. The new rules have also come under criticism for language that appears to give sweeping powers to legislative police officers to arrest people they feel may become disruptive, even if those individuals have not yet actually broken the law.
Mangum declined to comment on the specifics of what he would now consider appropriate forms of protests at the General Assembly.
"It's not a free for all down at the General Assembly," Mangum said. "There are limits to what individuals can do at the legislature."
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