Do you have the right to peacefully protest? Indeed, you have every right to speak out against your government, the president, or any other law or elected official; as well as the right to lawfully assemble. Those rights come from the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and are two of the most prolific, unwavering principles of a free and democratic society. Americans have faithfully exercised these precious rights throughout history, whether to challenge unjust laws, fight for civil rights, or simply voice an opinion.
Yet there are times when peaceful protest can rise to the level of civil disobedience in the eyes of the law. From Shays' Rebellion in the late 1700’s to more recent examples such as the Los Angeles Rodney King riots, sometimes free speech activities can become unruly – and keeping citizens safe becomes the government’s first priority.
Below we will discuss ways in which civil unrest violations can occur, including the federal statute prohibiting such activity and any possible penalties. We will also look at a recent and unusual example of what the government deemed "civil disorder" when a man brought firearms to a courthouse, and where you can go if you are charged with a violation of this crime against the government.
Civil Disorder Defined
The federal law against civil disorder can be found at 18 U.S.C. § 231 and can be violated in three distinct ways:
- Teaching or demonstrating to any other person the use, application, or making of any firearm or explosive or incendiary device, or technique capable of causing injury or death to persons, knowing or having reason to know or intending that the same will be unlawfully employed for use in, or in furtherance of, a civil disorder which may in any way or degree obstruct, delay, or adversely affect commerce or the movement of any article or commodity in commerce or the conduct or performance of any federally protected function;
- Transporting or manufacturing for transportation in commerce any firearm, or explosive or incendiary device, knowing or having reason to know or intending that the same will be used unlawfully in furtherance of a civil disorder; or
- Committing or attempting to commit any act to obstruct, impede, or interfere with any fireman or law enforcement officer lawfully engaged in the lawful performance of his official duties incident to and during the commission of a civil disorder which in any way or degree obstructs, delays, or adversely affects commerce or the movement of any article or commodity in commerce or the conduct or performance of any federally protected function.
If a person in convicted under this statute, they face up to five years in federal prison and/or a hefty fine.
Example of Civil Disorder at a Courthouse
Riots and protests aren’t the only place we've seen this law in action. In 2011, Darren Huff, believing President Obama was in violation of treason laws due to an unsubstantiated allegation that the president wasn't a natural born citizen, was convicted of carrying a firearm with the intent that it be used unlawfully in furtherance of civil disorder.
Huff admitted to devising a plot to go to the a Tennessee courthouse and "take over" the city by executing a citizen's arrest "warrant" for President Obama and several other government officials. He was planning to do this while armed with a loaded Colt .45, an AK-47, and 300 rounds of ammunition. While Huff did meet up with other like-minded individuals near the courthouse, he ended up returning to his home in Georgia after being unable to garner enough support from those in attendance. Huff was later arrested on a federal warrant and sentenced to prison.
Civil Disorder: Related Crimes
In addition, if the civil unrest becomes a "mob", then acts of vandalism, arson, and violence may occur. It is not uncommon for rocks, bricks or bottles to be thrown or even improvised explosive devices if the crowd becomes unruly.
Arrested on Charges of Civil Disorder? Get Legal Help
Whether you were marching on Washington, on campus, or in the streets, if you’ve been arrested and accused of civil disorder, you should know your rights. These cases can often be highly emotionally charged and you’ll want a strong advocate on your side that has experience dealing with the government. Contact an experienced criminal defense attorney near you today to find out about your rights and options.