Arrests draw fire from civil liberties group

By Bryan P. Sears
BridgeTower Media Newswires

ANNAPOLIS — For the last three sessions, Kevin and Jeff Hulbert have traveled to the state capital to bring attention to their concerns about gun laws in Maryland.

The co-leaders of a group called Patriot Picket, a pro-Second Amendment group, have made their presence felt carrying provocative signs criticizing Democrats, comparing limits on conceal-carry permits to Jim Crow laws, and calling House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. “traitors.”

“We call it hitting the bricks,” Jeff Hulbert said in an interview in front of the State House.

And when Maryland Capitol Police told the Hulberts and nearly a half dozen others to hit the bricks or face arrest, Jeff refused and was arrested Monday night. Kevin Hulbert, who video-recorded the incident, was also arrested while documenting police handcuffing his brother.

The arrests were not planned, but Jeff Hulbert said he felt he needed to stand up for his First Amendment rights.

He said he asked the other members to step back behind planters to avoid being arrested. None of the other members who attended the Monday night protest were cited.

Monday night the pair was charged with a citation of disorderly conduct. Tuesday, following an interview with The Daily Record, the brothers received additional citations related to the previous night for trespassing and failure to leave the grounds and for engaging in prohibited conduct on state property.

And while police say the arrests were necessary because of a risk to public safety, civil rights advocates say the incident is concerning.

“None of us were there last night, so did not see this demonstration, but the arrests, and DGS’s statement, look like additional evidence that DGS has no idea what the First Amendment means,” said David Rocah, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Maryland.

Rocah noted that there is no constitutional right to block the sidewalk for a demonstration that does not have a permit, or that is not a response to imminent events. But based on video of the Monday night arrests shot by The Daily Record, “it seems pretty clear that small number of people who were peacefully holding signs were not actually blocking the sidewalk, making the demand that they move, and the arrests for failing to move a violation of the protestors’ First Amendment rights,” he said.

Both the Hulberts and a spokesman for the Department of General Services, which includes the Maryland Capitol Police, agree that officers had asked the group to move from the sidewalk along College Avenue between the Senate and House office buildings and the State House.

Jeff Hulbert said police ordered them into Lawyers Mall, an area that requires a permit. Hulbert said his group has set up on a sidewalk he believes is a public right of way nearly every Monday since the start of the 2016 session.

The same area was used by environmental activists for a protest a week earlier. The group, which did not have a permit, was not asked to move by Maryland Capitol Police.

Jeff Hulbert said at no time did his group impede pedestrians.

Maryland Capitol Police Chief Michael Wilson told The Daily Record that the protest, held in an area illuminated by high-intensity lights put up by the state, was a safety issue, citing two pedestrian accidents in the last year “and several near misses.”

“The issue last night was safety, it was safety of people,” Wilson said. “Last night you had a lot of things going on. You had session at 8 p.m., it was dark, the tower light is on, traffic back and forth, people crossing, so when you have a demonstration or rally or people standing on the sidewalk,
partially blocking the sidewalk, distracting drivers, you have people crossing the road and someone is going to get hit.”

Wilson said the arrests came after the group was asked to move three times. When asked if members of the Patriot Picket had ever been asked to move before and complied, Wilson said: “Yes”

Wilson did say that while police request that protesters apply for a permit for the Lawyers Mall area, his officers will not arrest or move people out of the space in front of the State House if they don’t have one.

“We don’t turn people away if they don’t have a permit, and this particular group usually never has a permit,” Wilson said.

Rocah, the ACLU attorney, said Wilson’s explanation doesn’t justify the arrests.

“The right to stand on the sidewalk with signs without a permit (and without blocking pedestrian traffic) is a critically important First Amendment right, particularly in Annapolis, because it is one of the easiest and most accessible ways for people to get their message heard by the community at large, and particularly by the legislators and staffers who make or shape the laws in Annapolis,” Rocah said. “Which is precisely why so many groups do exactly that in precisely this location time and time again.

Whether pedestrians have been injured in Annapolis in incidents having nothing to do with a demonstration, he said, “and whether pedestrians in Annapolis (like pedestrians in every city in the country) have complained about cars not yielding to people in the crosswalk simply has nothing whatsoever to do with the legality of these arrests, or the First Amendment rights at issue here.”

For the Hulberts, the arrests and charges mean very little.

None of the citations prevent either man from returning to the state capital or participating in protests.

Jeff Hulbert said he’ll be hitting the bricks again on “Man Up Mondays” during the session.

“Monday night and maybe sooner,” he said.

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