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Scholar: Occupy Protest May Break Laws But Prosecution Tough

Occupy Bloomington protestors could be in violation of several state laws and city ordinances including disorderly conduct and obstruction of walkways.

An Indiana University legal scholar says the Occupy Bloomington protestors may be in violation of more than a dozen laws, but it could be hard to charge them even if they are. Bloomington city officials, including Mayor Mark Kruzan, admit law enforcement has been allowed to relax its enforcement of some laws, including those regarding trespassing on city property, loitering and permitting of signs or protests.

Possible Violations of City and State Code

IU distinguished law professor Fred Cate says the list of possible infractions is much longer. For instance, when local business owners complained of finding human waste in trash receptacles in the time since the protest began, it pointed out the likelihood the group’s members had violated Indiana code regarding public indecency, public nudity and public urination, as well as failing to secure proper sanitation facilities. They are also subject to violation of an Indiana law prohibiting “malicious mischief,” which protects people who might involuntarily come into contact with such waste.

The camp, which has become home to many protestors for the last two months, generates a fair amount of waste. But city code says household waste cannot be put in city trash cans, and state law says it cannot be left behind as litter, either.  Then there is the issue of damage to city property.

‘You can also commit damage just by, for example, wearing down the grass or using public property in a way that destroys it faster than it would otherwise be destroyed through ordinary use,” Cate says.

Tents, Mic Checks and Public Obstruction

The tents which have come to define the camp? They may be illegal, too, as it’s unlawful to erect permanent structures on public property.

“Putting a tent in a park is a structure,” Cate says. “In one city, they said even if you had umbrellas just propped up, but not being held by a person, that was a structure, that violated the ordinances for the park.”

And what about protestors speaking out during a recent meeting of the Bloomington Metropolitan Planning Organization or during a speech on the IU campus by Senator Richard Lugar?

The speech is protected under the First Amendment, Cate says, but when the speakers prevent someone else’s free speech, they may be charged with disturbing the peace, disorderly conduct or, if a group of five or more is found to be acting unlawfully, rioting.

“If people want to stand up and protest in a class, then everyone else who’s in that class – who’s paying tuition to be there – is losing what they were supposed to be getting out of that class,” he says. “And I wouldn’t at all be surprised to see, if protestors try to disrupt those events, that we would see the University try to seek prosecution or we would see the local police arrest people who do that.”

The group may also be cited for obstructing public walkways or for violating city sound ordinances. But filing a charge for any of these alleged offenses, Cate says, may be too difficult to attempt in many cases.

“The difficulty with suits like that, just so we’re clear, is you have to know who did it,” he says. “It’s not enough to say ‘somebody in this crowd did it.’”  You’ve got to be able to say ‘a, b, or c did it,’ or ‘I have a reasonable belief that a, b, or c did it.’ And so, it’s very hard to sue a group, if you will, especially a group that doesn’t have any legal definition.”

Bloomington city officials say they are monitoring the camp day-by-day.

Browse the table below to see a list of statutes the Bloomington Occupiers could have violated. Click on each violation to see the original city or state statute.

Stan Jastrzebski

WFIU/WTIU News Senior Editor Stan Jastrzebski spent time as a reporter with WGN Radio in Chicago and as an editor at Network Indiana, an Indianapolis news service. Stan is the winner of awards from the Associated Press, the RTDNA, the Indiana Broadcasters Association and the Society of Professional Journalists. He hosts WFIU's Ask the Mayor and anchors WTIU's InFocus.

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