As Houston readers are aware, the recent Occupy protests across the country have resulted in a range of reactions from police and local prosecutors. Compared to some cities, the protests in Houston have been somewhat calm. But now Houston authorities are using more aggressive legal tactics against a number of activists. Police have now arrested seven protestors on the criminal charge of using or possessing a criminal instrument. The “criminal instrument” in question is a PVC pipe used by activists to bind themselves together as police attempt an arrest.
Ruling that the prosecutors had failed to show good reason for a felony arrest, a Houston judge dismissed the charges earlier this week. However, the district attorney’s office indicated that it would pursue an indictment by a grand jury.
Meanwhile, a criminal law professor at the University of Houston Law Center said the felony charges were “highly unusual,” pointing out that civil disobedience has a long history in the United States. The professor said that passive resistance does not amount to a felony offense.
Additionally, an attorney for the defendants argued that their use of the PVC could not meet the criteria of criminal instrument usage, as criminal instruments have to be specifically designed for a crime. In other words, just because an object is used in a crime does not make it a criminal instrument. The criminal instrument charge is usually brought against people who accused of planning to commit a crime, not against people who may have already committed a crime.
Of course, if the case goes to a grand jury, the court’s ultimate ruling will be determined largely by how the district attorney argues before the judges. The assistant district attorney claims that the use of the PVC pipe does classify it as a criminal instrument, as the object was used in blocking a roadway as protestors linked themselves together.
However, the attorney for the defendants adamantly disagrees: “There’s a saying,” he said. “In Texas, you can indict a ham sandwich.”
Houston residents who are currently facing criminal charges would do well to explore all of their legal options. Many cases hinge on a definition of legal terms, and one of the best first steps an accused individual can do is seek help from legal professionals who are familiar with those terms.
Source: msnbc.com, “Houston DA turns up the heat on Occupy activists,” Kari Huus, Dec. 16, 2011