Law & the Courts

Portland DA Declines to Prosecute Host of Riot-Related Offenses, Citing ‘Depth of Emotion’ Surrounding Racial Justice

A demonstrator sits on the roof of a car in Portland, Ore., August 1, 2020. (Caitlin Ochs/Reuters)

The Portland district attorney will only be pressing charges against rioters arrested for assault, theft and property damage, opting to drop lesser charges, including rioting and disorderly conduct, that have come out of months of violent protests in the city, the office announced Tuesday.

“As prosecutors, we acknowledge the depth of emotion that motivates these demonstrations and support those who are civically engaged through peaceful protesting,” said Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt in an announcement of the policy. “We recognize that we will undermine public safety, not promote it, if we leverage the force of our criminal justice system against peaceful protestors who are demanding to be heard.”

Schmidt said in a statement Tuesday that “the prosecution of people exercising their rights to free speech and assembly in a non-violent manner takes away from the limited resources that we have to prosecute serious crimes and to assist crime victims.”

Under the new policy the DA will not prosecute charges of interfering with a peace officer or parole and probation officer, disorderly conduct, criminal trespass, escape, harassment or riot and will subject charges of resisting arrest or assaulting a police officer “to the highest level of scrutiny by the deputy district attorney reviewing the arrest.”

“Consideration will be given to the chaos of a protesting environment,” the release continues, “especially after tear gas or other less-lethal munitions have been deployed against community members en masse.”

Schmidt said he received feedback on the policy from Portland Police Bureau chief Chuck Lovell and Multnomah County sheriff Mike Reese that led him to include a stipulation allowing for riot charges to be pressed if they are accompanied by a felony that involves violence. 

The district attorney had drawn criticism from the Portland Police Association that he is not keeping the community safe. The group sent Schmidt a letter last week urging him to “hold the rioters accountable.”

PPB had charged protestors with “interfering with a peace officer” 313 times, more than any other charge, since May 29, according to data released by the DA’s office on Tuesday. The most common felony charge has been for rioting, which was used 44 times in that period.

For crimes that “only cause financial harm,” Schmidt will push for alternatives to jail or prison time, such as “restorative justice” in which the crime victim and defendant can collaboratively decide on the best way to make amends.

Schmidt’s announcement comes less than two weeks after he took office. He was elected in May after running on a criminal justice reform platform and had been scheduled to begin his term in January, but assumed his role early when the former DA resigned earlier this summer. 

Violent unrest has plagued the city since the death of George Floyd in May. Rioters injured three police officers on Saturday night — two of whom were treated at a hospital and released. The night before demonstrators threw rocks, frozen or hard-boiled eggs, and commercial-grade fireworks at officers, the Associated Press reported. 

Others placed pool noodles filled with nails on the road, damaging a patrol vehicle. 

Federal agents were deployed to the city to protect a federal courthouse that rioters repeatedly targeted, but have since been withdrawn from the city following the complaints of local government officials. 

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