This summer, people in Chelsea joined those around the state and the country to protest against racism and police brutality, following the death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis Police Department. Some of those protestors were issued tickets by the Chelsea Police for impeding traffic.
Today, a District Court judge dismissed those tickets, saying they were issued under "an unconstitutional statute." This comes after a unanimous decision by Chelsea City Council last week to recommend that Chelsea Police Chief Ed Toth dismiss the tickets.
During last week's city council meeting, city attorney Peter Flintoft mentioned that courts might have to get involved if a fine had already been paid.
"Your motion is to direct the chief to rescind and refund all citations. I don’t think you can refund, that’s for the court to do that if there’s been any fine paid," he said.
14A-3 District Court Judge Anna Frushour dismissed tickets issued to 15 people in downtown Chelsea, including Chelsea High School student Mya King, who also reported racist treatment after reporting an assault by a woman at one of the protests.
Frushour pointed to the Michigan Vehicle Code, particularly section 257.676b. It says that under certain circumstances, someone who is blocking traffic to solicit charitable donations is exempt from civil infraction.
Frushour says this leads to an "absurd outcome."
"Why would a person who is standing in the roadway for the purpose of protest be treated any differently from a person standing in the road for the purpose of soliciting for a charitable or civic purpose?" she said. "Soliciting for a charity or civic donation doesn’t provide a cloak of protection against getting hit by a car or impeding traffic, yet this type of speech is exempt. And that is content-based regulation of protected speech, with no compelling government interest."
Basically, Frushour elaborated, under this code, soliciting donations is allowed, but protesting is not. This means, she says, that the legislators responsible for section 257.676b essentially regulated the freedom of speech, protected by the First Amendment, based on the content of that speech: soliciting donations is acceptable content, but protesting is not. And that, Frushour says, is the issue.
"The city of Chelsea argues repeatedly this is not about what Miss King says, but what she was doing. However, in this case, the court doesn't believe the facts support that conclusion. Miss King's letter from the Chelsea Police Department reads, 'You have been identified as blocking the street while demonstrating.' The inclusion of this language makes this ticket about more than just impeding traffic, and that's a problem."
In a statement, Mya King said, "I feel relieved. There’s still a long way to go as we try to promote an anti-racist Chelsea, but this is a good first step."