Arrested protesters make first court appearance

Published: Mar. 5, 2012 at 10:44 PM EST|Updated: Mar. 5, 2012 at 10:52 PM EST
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RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - It's a powerful sight that had many of you talking this weekend. About thirty people protesting the ultrasound bill were dragged away from the steps of the Capitol Saturday and arrested.

Many of these protesters made their first court appearance Monday.

These arrests have set off a firestorm of debate. State regulations do not allow protesters to assemble on the steps of the Capitol, but others argue these arrests fly in the face of their First Amendment rights.

It's a scene some may not want to remember - but may have a hard time forgetting. Police in riot gear marching into Capitol Square while other officers drag protesters off the steps of the Capitol.

These protesters have made headlines nationwide - speaking out against a bill now before the governor that would require a woman to have an ultrasound before having an abortion.

About two-thirds of the arrested protesters were arraigned in court Monday morning.

"I just couldn't believe what I was seeing and how they were telling us to leave," said Chris Hawkins, one of the thirty arrested. "This is public property, the gates are open. There are no signs saying we can't protest. We're exercising our constitutional freedom."

All of the protesters now face trespassing and unlawful assembly charges.

Attorney Wayne Powell is representing many of the protesters for free. He says he's climbed the steps of the Capitol and has never been arrested. He doesn't see where the law was broken. He wants to see these charges dismissed.

"I didn't see anything in the video I saw that this was anything but a peaceable assembly," Powell said. "I think that's what the first amendment of our constitution guarantees to all of us."

But regulations by the Department of General Services prohibit protesters from climbing the steps. That's why Capitol Police stepped in.

Captain Raymond Goodloe says the only reason police wore riot gear was to protect themselves, not to fend off unarmed protesters.

"It doesn't take but a minute for a large crowd to go bad," Goodloe said. "This group was very loud and emotional and we didn't want to take any chances."

Both trespassing and unlawful assembly are Class One misdemeanors. Each carries a possible sentence of a year in jail.

All of the protesters are scheduled to be back in court later this month.

The response to the protest also sparked debate today in the General Assembly.

Democrats said the image of SWAT teams guarding the Capitol steps was a frightful over-reaction to hundreds of unarmed demonstrators.

Republicans defended Sate and Capitol Police, saying their presence was proportional to enforce order against unspecified threats.

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