The Associated Press
PORTLAND — The Oregon Supreme Court has ruled that 50 people arrested during Occupy Portland protests two years ago are entitled to jury trials, even though prosecutors downgraded the misdemeanor charges to violations with no threat of jail sentences.
The ruling on Thursday means prosecutors can’t unilaterally change a criminal prosecution to a noncriminal one and use that change to deprive defendants of their right to a jury trial, The Oregonian newspaper reported.
Prosecutors in the Multnomah County district attorney’s office said they hadn’t decided whether they would now seek to try the protesters.
The case involves the October 2011 arrest of Laurie Ann Benoit in Jamison Square. She was jailed for several hours on an accusation of second-degree criminal trespass, a misdemeanor.
Prosecutors opted to pursue the case as a violation, a lesser, noncriminal offense. Those convicted of such violations face only a fine or other civil penalty.
The state argued that move decriminalized the charge.
But Justice David Brewer wrote for a unanimous court that the Legislature established second-degree criminal trespass as a criminal offense and changing the possible penalty does not allow the state to take away a defendant’s constitutional right to appointed counsel and a jury trial.
The decision accompanied another on Thursday in a similar case. The court said Tawanna D. Fuller was entitled to a jury trial to face charges of third-degree theft and attempted first-degree theft. The crimes are misdemeanor offenses, but prosecutors decided to pursue those charges as violations.
The state Supreme Court said Fuller still deserved constitutional protections for offenses that retained attributes of a criminal prosecution on a charge commonly understood by society to be criminal in nature.
The court noted that many jurisdictions around the country have opted to treat certain low-level crimes as violations, in part due to budgetary constraints.
Prosecutors said they were still evaluating the Fuller case, as well.