Just what is Judge Richard Sinnott up to as he tries to keep a handful of protesters in legal hot water?
And, more important — why?
Last week, Boston Police arrested dozens of demonstrators who were protesting the so-called Straight Pride parade, many on minor charges such as disorderly conduct.
Nothing unusual there. Police often make arrests at political rallies — in fact, demonstrators often seek arrest — and when they do, a familiar ritual begins. It usually ends with prosecutors quietly dropping the charges, sometimes in exchange for a few hours of community service. That makes perfect sense: Why gum up the legal system with the most trivial of minor crimes?
But this week, in a highly unusual move, Sinnott, a Boston Municipal Court judge, refused to let prosecutors dismiss charges against 18 of the defendants who came through his courtroom. In some of the cases, prosecutors wanted the defendants to perform community service instead, a deal that needs a judge’s approval.
Now, it might be one thing if the Suffolk district attorney, Rachael Rollins, had sought to waive the more serious charges that arose out of Saturday’s protest. Of the 36 arrests on Saturday, nine were for assaulting a police officer; a few more defendants were charged with assault.
Those are serious charges. And prosecutors seem to be taking them seriously, deciding to prosecute eight people charged with acts of violence. Defendants “will be held accountable for actions that put the safety of the public and law enforcement at risk,” Rollins said in a statement.
By refusing to dismiss the more minor charges, Sinnott provoked a torrent of criticism from defense lawyers, who questioned whether he even has the right to the deny Rollins’s requests. That led to another unusual scene on Wednesday, when one lawyer was cited for contempt, handcuffed, and removed from the courtroom after she insisted Sinnott was interfering with prosecutors’ discretion.
The dispute intensified Wednesday night when Rollins asked the Supreme Judicial Court to step in, seeking an emergency order to overrule the judge. But even if Sinnott has the authority to deny some or all of Rollins’s attempts to drop charges, this is a case where he really shouldn’t use it.
The kabuki dance of arrests at protests, followed by the daintiest of slaps on the wrist, provokes a certain amount of eye-rolling from the public. But the system works: Activists get to prove their unyielding commitment to their cause by getting arrested, and police have a tool to defuse unruly situations.
To some observers, the skirmish looks like a proxy war in the ongoing tension between judges and the DA. Elected as a reformer, Rollins has been trying to reduce the number of minor offenses charged by her office. Implementing her policies hasn’t been without controversy — but none of that should change the way a judge handles an individual defendant.
The police patrolmen’s union, which pressed for charges against the defendants, applauded Sinnott’s decisions. Really? Police benefit as much as anyone from the wink-and-nod tradition of dealing with arrests at political rallies. Would officers truly be better off if protesters suddenly had a new reason to resist arrest?
To be clear, anyone suspected of violence against a police officer (or anyone else) should be dealt with appropriately. Four officers were injured on Saturday, and that is unacceptable. But for the others who were arrested Saturday on charges that didn’t involve violence, what good does it do for anyone to keep them in legal limbo?