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Occupy Denver: ACLU reacts to restriction against recording during court appearances

Westword has been present at every Sunday-morning arraignment related to Occupy Denver arrests. It was only this past Sunday, however, that I was forbidden by the court from recording anything while inside. The recent ban on anyone other than lawyers taking notes on the arrests and bond rates marks the strictest efforts taken against the occupation in court, and it has earned a direct response from the Colorado ACLU: No way, Jose.

On Sunday, court officials at the Van Cise-Simonet Detention Center warned me, Denver Post reporter Wes Gentry and the occupation's internal legal team that we would not be allowed to bring in notebooks, bags or cell phones; we were asked to put those items in our cars or in a cubby inside the lobby. In place of this, court reps told us we could each bring in a pen and a sheet of paper. Upon using them, however, we were individually asked to stop any note-taking or be required to leave the courtroom. Occupy Denver's protester-packed legal force resorted to scratching newly raised bond rates into paper with their fingernails.

Occupy Denver supporters gather to help their fellow volunteers post bail after the group's first arraignment on October 15.
Occupy Denver supporters gather to help their fellow volunteers post bail after the group's first arraignment on October 15.
Kelsey Whipple

The decision was unexpected, and though it is unlikely to be repeated, the group's lawyers say, the ACLU of Colorado chose to address it definitively in a letter sent yesterday to the presiding judge of the Denver County Court. In addition to requesting records relating to police force, investigating the removal of protester property and stopping by the occasional Occupy Denver event, Colorado ACLU representatives have stepped into the occupation's First Amendment ring once more. (Read more about the legal precedents involved in the letter below.)

"We request that you take all necessary steps to ensure that Judge Hoffman, and any other Denver County Court judge who has adopted a similar prohibition, immediately cease such unconstitutional restrictions on public access to the courtroom," ACLU attorney Sara Rich writes. "In addition, we respectfully request that you respond to our concerns on or before December 2, 2011, and describe what actions you have taken to ensure compliance with the First Amendment protected right of access to criminal trials in Denver County courtrooms."

In all, the restriction on recording materials in court is just the latest in a string of events that has escalated gradually since the group's first collective visit to courtroom 2300. That weekend, the standard bond rate reached $750, a total equal to the max possible fine of the first round of unlawful conduct arrests. For the past two weeks, part-time magistrate John Hoffman has refused to hear any arguments on bail, which prohibits the group's lawyers from making any effort to lower the rates, even for arrestees with no prior criminal records.

The default action has become that of immediately accepting the city's bond recommendation, most recently $200 higher than it was only two weeks before. The result quickly depletes the funds of the group's legal team, fronted and financially supported by the Denver Anarchist Black Cross. After court on Sunday, the group was short more than $400 needed to bail out all of its twenty arrestees, and protester Corey Donahue's most recent stint in jail lasted from Sunday to Wednesday before funds were raised to bail him out. At present, three protesters remain in jail: Jonathan Shepard, Victor Jaime and Robert Huffman.

Below is the letter the Colorado ACLU sent yesterday: ACLU Letter on Recording in Court

More from our Occupy Denver archive: "Occupy Denver: State denies colluding against occupiers in response to attorney David Lane."


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