WASHINGTON –– Justin Matthews spent his time between school and work talking about issues that affect his community and marching alongside community members in Columbus. Now, he is one example of a growing number of charges dropped in courts nationwide with no help from local prosecutors.
Matthews was one of many individuals who, in late October, was fighting their way through the court system. He thought that his participation in a peaceful protest on July 24th would only result in a sore throat. That was until he found out there was a warrant out for his arrest.
“I got charged for pedestrian use of a sidewalk. I got a warrant for that, which is essentially a jaywalking charge,” Matthews said, “and then the other one was interfering with others [and] disorderly conduct.”
Matthews said that both charges were for videotaping a woman who would soon be arrested by the police.
“She didn’t want to go,” Matthews said. “She had told us before that she had been, like, sexually assaulted by the police when they arrested her, so she obviously didn’t want to go.”
After a few days with no comments, Matthews decided to check and see if he had been served any legal paperwork or a warrant was put out for his arrest. However, a misspelling on court documents led him to believe that he had not been charged or ordered to speak with the police. The second warrant included correct spelling, but an incorrect address.
A few weeks passed, and Matthews found himself stopped by a police officer. The traffic stop was to confirm a warrant in his state that, while not leading to his arrest, did require him to appear in court. He soon found out that nearly every person who he knew from the protest was also charged with similarly ineffective warrants.
A three-month investigation confirmation originally confirmed a growing number of court cases in the city related to the July Black Lives Matters protests in downtown Columbus. Now, it has also confirmed that Matthews case, along with over 25 others placed in that court, was dismissed before they could be completed. State court records also indicated that less than 10 of the more than 100 court cases documented were successfully prosecuted.
Matthews ties these moments back to the number of detectives, and the actions of one Detective Schueller in the metropolitan police department.
Detective Schuler, according to Matthew’s lawyer Kevin Zamora, has oftentimes been the one that has approached protesters individually, giving him his card with his phone number on it, asking them to come in and talk with him. In a written statement, Zamora says that it is “apparently under the assumption that the protesters are part of some international conspiracy, and upon the protester’s refusal, this officer threatens them with felony indictments.”
TikToker Mahala Howard expended time and effort on her personal account to ensure that the detective was aware of the department’s stance. In an interview, she explained that she was concerned for others like Matthews that had been harassed and accosted. This same detective was caught in this video, threatening to upgrade any charges to a “felony charge” pending another young woman’s voluntary submission to the police.
That young woman, one of many black women involved in the process, highlights a secondary problem of the race in these proceedings. Studies by the Louisville Courier-Journal found an increasing number of people arrested in protests nationwide were black, and that even more were facing felony charges
All of the interviewees, before their court cases came to light, were under 21 and participated only in peaceful protests per recording obtained from Ms. Howard, local authorities, and reported sources. Nevertheless, they were served warrants for charges that seemed specious, especially to the lawyers working the case.
Kevin Zamora is the lawyer who first reached out to these young adults. He offered them access to his counsel and immediately noticed an increasing similarity in the stories of his clients. Issues with names, locations, and a number of threats to increase charges by police officers with no power to do so.
“The thing about a lot of these warrants is that they are being issued by this same handful of officers thereafter being [rubber-stamped] by the Franklin County Clerk of Courts as opposed to by a ‘neutral and detached magistrate,’” Zamora wrote in a statement. “The defendants are not being served with a complaint or summons, cited with a ticket, or a court date-simply just a warrant is issued for their arrest. The U.S. Supreme Court has approved of this practice despite it not appearing to be constitutional.”
One comment obtained from a source in the Franklin County prosecutor’s office noted that there was a heavy tension between the prosecutors and the police officers involved in the process. Zamora noted this as well, acknowledging that it was a seemingly intimidating process.
“I want to know if this is an abuse of power,” Zamora said, “or if this is being used to retaliate against protestors around the black lives matter [protests].”
The police officers who attempted to press for these charges also created confusion through their conversations with the individuals who they claimed participated in the events. As people were brought in to speak with detectives and called for their lawyers, names and identifying information couldn’t be confirmed. Matthews, Howard, and several other interviewees confirm the distrust that this causes.
“While I was out on the street, police walked up to a girl and asked her to come with,” Matthews said. “I asked them if they had a warrant or a reason for an arrest. I didn’t know if they were even police officers.”
He said they were “dressed up like normal people” or were “undercover at the protests.
Zamora and Matthews worked together to compile a number of cases related to these officers, assisting in creating this investigation’s compendium of opened and closed cases. As of this moment, more than 80% of cases in the list provided were dismissed or substantially lowered, with only one listed case remaining active. A wider review of the publicly available documents showed that of instances proven related to Black Lives Matter protests on that date, more than 90% are closed with a dismissed or lowered sentence.
Zamora also said in a statement that the threat of an increased sentence isn’t uncommon, but the decision by the officer could be a type of extortion.
“It is apparently legal for the officer to suggest that a felony indictment will occur should they refuse to cooperate, but threatening directly that the officer himself (who by the way is not a prosecutor) may, in fact, be considered extortion,” Zamora said. “However, the U.S. Supreme Court has also held that once the person being interrogated unequivocally invokes their Fifth Amendment Right to Remain Silent, the police officers need to be left alone, so some of these instances in which these officers are harassing the protesters after they have refused to be interrogated could be interpreted as unconstitutional.”
When attempts were made to communicate with spokespersons for the Columbus Police Department, the specific detectives, the detective unit, the Franklin County Clerks Office, and other officers related to the events, phone calls and emails yielded no comment.
This story was completed in progress to a Masters in Journalism through Georgetown University’s School of Continuing Studies in my capacity as a graduate student.