Suffolk County prosecutors moved to dismiss charges against some of the nearly three dozen people arrested during the "Straight Pride Parade" in Boston, saying the allegations were not worth prosecuting.
But Boston Municipal Court Judge Richard Sinnott refused. He arraigned many of the defendants anyway.
Susan Church, a defense attorney representing protesters, objected to that decision and interrupted Sinnott to argue he did not have the authority to do that. Sinnott then ordered her handcuffed and placed her in custody for contempt of court.
That stunning courtroom face-off and arrest this week have sparked a heated debate about the legal separation of powers, free speech,and a prosecutor's ability to carry out reform-minded agendas.
Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins is one of a number of local progressive prosecutors elected in major American cities over the past few years. These prosecutors, including officials in Philadelphia, Chicago and Baltimore, have faced roadblocks and criticisms from police, judges and Trump administration attorneys in their efforts to move the criminal justice system away from prosecuting low-level offenses.
Rollins filed an emergency petition on Wednesday requesting that the Supreme Judicial Court order Sinnott to accept the dismissal of charges against one protester accused of disorderly conduct.
"The actions of Judge Richard Sinnott are unprecedented and outrageous," Rollins said in a statement. "His insistence on arraigning individuals when my office has used its discretion to decline a case is an unconstitutional abuse of his power and serves neither the interests of justice nor public safety."
Judge Sinnott declined to comment, said Jennifer Donahue, spokesperson for the court.
In Rollins' petition, she said Sinnott refused to recognize the dismissals because the district attorney's office failed to comply with the state Victim's Bill of Rights.
"The judge contended that the Commonwealth could not file a nolle prosequi without notifying the parade organizers because they, essentially, could be considered 'victims' whose First Amendment right to free speech had been impeded by the Defendant's protest," the petition said.
In addition, the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers called for an investigation and formal inquiry into the matter.
"Judge Sinnott's actions constitute egregious judicial misconduct, demonstrate a lack of proper temperament, and violated the constitutional and statutory rights of both the accused and Attorney Church," the organization said. "Moreover, his refusal to allow the executive branch to function independently underscores either an alarming lack of rudimentary understanding of the constitutional principle of separation of powers, or a belief that he would not be held accountable."
Sinnott was appointed to the bench by Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, in 2017. Prior to becoming a judge, Sinnott practiced civil and criminal law with his own law office for more than 25 years, according to the 2017 nomination announcement. He was an Army Reserve judge advocate and Iraq war veteran, the announcement said.
Arrests at Straight Pride Parade
The legal debate stems from arrests at the "Straight Pride Parade" on Saturday. The march through downtown Boston was organized by Super Happy Fun America, a trollish group that argues straight people are an "oppressed majority." Milo Yiannopoulos, the disgraced far-right provocateur, was the grand marshal.
Protected by a heavy police presence, marchers stood on floats and carried signs at the parade promoting the military and President Trump. They were met by large groups of counter protesters who said the parade was mocking Boston's LGBTQ Pride parade.
"I'm outraged by the idea that straight people need a pride parade," said Shoshanna Ehrlich, who came with her daughter. "We are not an oppressed majority by an stretch of the imagination. This is full of hate and offensive."
Thirty-four people were arrested at the parade, said Boston Police Officer James Moccia, a department spokesman. Four officers also suffered non-life threatening injuries, he said.
Judge refuses to accept dismissals
In court on Tuesday, Rollins directed prosecutors to move to dismiss charges against seven people prior to arraignment if they completed community service, the district attorney's office said. Prosecutors also filed "nolle prosequi" motions -- a legal term meaning not to prosecute -- for three other people, because the police reports did not show probable cause.
Instead, Judge Sinnott arraigned the seven people on charges of disorderly conduct, including some with an additional resisting arrest charge, the district attorney's office said. He also arraigned one of the three "nolle prosequi" cases and set bail over the objection of prosecutors.
Rollins said Sinnott's decision punished people for exercising their right to protest enshrined in the First Amendment.
"At my request, prosecutors used the discretion constitutionally allocated to the executive branch to triage cases and use our resources most effectively to protect public safety," she said.
"Make no mistake: some people were appropriately arraigned and will be held accountable for actions that put the safety of the public and law enforcement at risk," she added. "For those people now tangled in the criminal justice system for exercising their right to free speech—many of whom had no prior criminal record—I will use the legal process to remedy the judge's overstepping of his role."
In another case Wednesday, Judge Sinnott again refused to accept prosecutors' motion to dismiss charges, leading to the arrest of Church, the defense attorney.
Church, who represented some of the protesters, began to argue with the judge's reasoning, she told CNN. She read aloud case law saying prosecutors had sole discretion in choosing not to prosecute a case, and the two began to speak over each other.
"The next thing I knew I was in handcuffs," she told CNN.
Church was detained for just over three hours, she said.
"I was treated better than criminal defendants, but I was scared because I didn't know what was going to happen," she said. "I didn't know if I was going home that night, I didn't know if I was going to see my kids. I had court paperwork to file so I had to have someone do that for me."
She said the contempt charge was not carried out in a legal manner and said Sinnott had "lashed out because he was angry."
In the emergency petition that Rollins filed Wednesday she said Sinnott unconstitutionally refused to accept the prosecution's decision not to prosecute one of the protesters. The maximum fine for disorderly conduct as a first-time offense is $150, yet the judge set the defendant's bail at $750, according to the filing.
"My petition is a call for order to be returned to our courts, to ensure the fair administration of justice, and to restore the public's trust in the integrity of our legal system," Rollins said in a statement. "The people of Suffolk County elected me to do exactly what I am doing."