Chelsea Council Reviews Judge’s Ruling to Drop Charges
By Doug Marrin
At the March 1, 2021, Chelsea City Council meeting, City Attorney Peter Flintoft reviewed and discussed Judge Frushour’s ruling from February 22 that dropped all charges of impeding traffic against the protesters of last summer.
Attorney Flintoft made it clear from the beginning of his presentation that his disagreement was not necessarily with the outcome but the line of reasoning Judge Frushour took to get there.
“I want to say at the beginning here, I am extremely dissatisfied, and I'll explain that to you later, with the decision of the Judge,” said Mr. Flintoft. “While I respect her, I think there were other ways she could have come to the results she did. But what she has done is create a larger problem than she was presented.”
The charges in question are tickets issued by the Chelsea Police Department to protesters marching in Main St. on July 31, 2021. Public outcry over the incident demanded an independent investigation into law enforcement’s handling of the situation. The report was presented to the Council at its February 1, 2021, meeting.
The public also demanded that the City drop all charges against the protesters. At its February 16 meeting, the City Council formally requested Chief Toth to drop the charges.
In a statement released on February 19, Chief Toth contextualized his department’s actions and said he would let the court decide whether to drop the charges.
On February 22, Judge Frushour ruled that the state law concerning unpermitted impediment of traffic on a state road that the Chelsea Police were enforcing that day, as unconstitutional and dropped all the charges.
In her decision, Judge Frushour explained what she saw as a conflict in Michigan law. State law allows people in the street to solicit donations, which in her opinion, impedes traffic. State law, however, does not allow people to impede traffic to protest unless they have a permit. Because of the inconsistency, the Judge deemed the law against protesting as unconstitutional and dropped all charges.
“But frankly, I saw nothing amiss in the way the citations were written,” said Mr. Flintoft. “This comes down to two circumstances—a person standing in a roadway for the purpose of soliciting contributions, and people who block interfere and obstruct the normal flow of traffic.”
“I said then, and I say now that this is not a question of free speech,” added the Attorney. “This is a question of conduct.”
Attorney Flintoft’s disagreement with the Judge was not the decision to drop the charges but rather the line of reasoning that brought Judge Frushour to that decision. The Attorney pointed out other possible routes to dismiss the tickets against the protesters. The court could have found, through a trial, a lack of intent by the defendants to obstruct traffic. “You could have found that the methods of identification were unwarranted intrusions,” added Mr. Flintoft. “(The court) could have suspended the fines.”
The Attorney pointed out to the Council that the law in question is not a city ordinance or any other enactment of local government. “This is an enactment of the Michigan Legislature that she specifically held to be unconstitutional, unenforceable in any circumstance.”
Mr. Flintoft pointed out that this now creates problems for the City of Chelsea moving forward. The Attorney then got to the question on many people’s minds. “So what's the legal effect?” he asked rhetorically.
The Attorney proceeded to assume that this ruling then applies to anybody coming through the City of Chelsea on M-52, pointing to a study ten years ago that showed 12,000 vehicles a day coming through the town, approximately 30,000 people.
“So what do police officers do if there are protests other than the ones we’ve seen today?” he asked. “Can they threaten those individuals with a citation and an economic sanction to get them out of the highway and release the traffic that is obstructed, to grant to everybody who wants to use the road the right to the safe and normal passage of their vehicles?”
“How do you control the necessity of the police, like them or not, to come out and regulate traffic?” continued the Attorney. “I really don’t know.”
Mr. Flintoft then explained that if law enforcement can no longer effectively issue civil infractions (citations) for the obstruction of traffic, the tools for officers to restore traffic and control a situation “all rise up to the level of arrest for breach of the peace.”
Mr. Flintoft then recommended that the City Council authorize an appeal to this court ruling so that “we can get this matter back to where it belongs.”
Councilmember Feeney asked the Attorney if the court’s decision would affect other areas because it was about state law. Mr. Flintoft said it would be binding for Chelsea, but he could not answer for the impact it might have on other communities.
Councilmember Albertson asked Mr. Flintoft if an appeal of the decision would reinstate the charges against the protesters. The Attorney replied that the charges would be reinstated and brought to the same Judge, who would have to find another way to dismiss them or find people responsible.
Mayor Johnson clarified the City’s situation, saying, “I just want to make sure everyone's clear right now. We have a decision which dismissed the case based on constitutional grounds. That leaves the City without a civil infraction option for enforcement. And should we have an issue with public safety in the future, the City’s only legal response that they have available at this point is a misdemeanor.”
Councilmember Feeney presented a visceral but hypothetical situation to the Attorney. “If the Proud Boys or the Klan decide that they want to use Chelsea as their marching place, which none of would welcome, do we have an enforcement option if they don't pull a permit and block M-52?”
Mr. Flintoft explained that citations could be issued as before. However, when the defendants appeared before Judge Frushour, he would expect their attorneys to cite this ruling and get the charges dropped.
Councilmember Albertson observed that the issue still needed work. “I guess I'm left with a lot of confusion, and I think that we're not done with this. I need to know how we're going to go forward with getting some closure to this.”
Mayor Johnson concluded the discussion by succinctly pointing out that the City had three options:
- Do nothing
- Authorize an appeal for the legal issues at play
- Petition the State Legislature to change the statute.
The deadline for an appeal is 21 days from the ruling, March 15, for this case. The Council briefly discussed holding a special meeting to discuss an appeal, but no decision was made.
The audio for the City Attorney’s review can be found on the City’s website.
Photo by Doug Marrin