After three years of sporadic protests and hundreds of arrests at the state Capitol, the Department of Justice has said continuing to enforce laws maintaining order at the Capitol outweigh any costs associated with enforcing them.
Earlier this year Dane County Circuit Judge Peter Anderson, concerned with continued controversy over the arrests of Solidarity Singers, ordered a cost benefit analysis of the expenditures and merits involved in the arrests of protestors at the Capitol from the Department of Justice.
Last week, Assistant Deputy Attorney General Dan Lennington from the Department of Justice replied to the judge’s request with a letter containing no numerical information but arguing that the monetary and social costs of not enforcing the laws would far outweigh police enforcement and court costs.
“It is safe to say without the aid of a calculator that the concept of the rule of law has considerable value to all citizens,” Lennington said in the letter. “A complete abandonment of enforcement of these rules when probable cause exists to find they have been violated would elevate a prosecutor’s personal opinion above law, thus rendering the rule of law a nullity.”
Lennington also argued in the letter that it is the duty of the prosecutor, not the court, to decide whether or not to file citations against the protestors.
Protestor arrests at the state Capitol have been occurring under Gov. Scott Walker’s administration since the 2011 protests over Walker’s bill to restrict unions’ collective bargaining rights. Since the protests began, hundreds of protestors have been arrested and cited for gathering without permits at the Capitol.
According to the Dane County Circuit Court, Judge John Markson threw out 29 citations for singing at the Capitol because the arrests of protestors, “violate the First Amendment because it applies, on its face, to very small groups,” he said in a February court ruling.
The Department of Administration has also recently proposed new rules that would further restrict protestors in Wisconsin. The proposed rules would give police the power to deny access to events for which protestors have been given notice, establish a 85-decibel noise limit for protesting crowds and would limit signs used in protests to 28 inches.
“The arrests of the protestors are a power grab in many ways, and the Department of Administration is basically attempting to intimidate the protestors into going away,” Lisa Subeck, spokesperson for United Wisconsin, said. “What the administration has found is that these laws will not silence us, they will only make us stronger.”
If these issues cannot be resolved in the lower courts, the issue may make it all the way to the Supreme Court, where Wisconsin’s seven justices will discuss the fate of these new laws and ordinances, Subeck said.
Until an ultimate resolution is reached, the push and pull between protestors and law enforcement agencies will continue unabated.
“The [Department of Administration] should not be using laws to hide behind so they don’t have to hear the citizens of Wisconsin,” Chris Ahmuty, executive director of the Wisconsin American Civil Liberties Union, said.