We have previously discussed my reservations about the use of federal charges of arson and other crimes to prosecute individuals accused of rioting offenses in the recent protests. The concern was the federalization of local offenses. Now, however, I have concerns about state charges out of Oklahoma.
Teenagers are facing terrorism charges after allegedly helping to break in the windows of an Oklahoma City bail bonds business in late May. I have long raised concerns about the broadening of terrorism laws and this is an example of why I still hold such concerns. As the Justice Department explores possible terrorism charges, the Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater appears to be adopting an exceptionally broad interpretation of that crime. Among those charged was Malachai Davis, 18, who was shown breaking the window of the CJ Bail Bond building using what appeared to be brass knuckles.
That charge has a tragic irony because, according to his attorney, Davis’ father died in the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in 2001.
Haley Lin Crawford and Sydney Lunch, who both just turned 18, were charged with acting with a large crowd to unlawfully break the windows of CJ’s Bail Bonds in Oklahoma City on May 30, according to the Oklahoman. They were identified using Facebook Live video streamed by other demonstrators as well as the Crimestoppers bulletin below.
At least three others had been charged with terrorism after the May 30 incident.
Prater declared last month that those who incite violence in the streets are “criminals” and “[w]hen you employ these tactics for a political purpose, you are a terrorist.” He denounced Black Lives Matter protestors of later trying to intimidate him and law enforcement to drop the charges. Protesters held a sit in at his office.
I tend to agree with the Black Lives Matter position, contained in a petition on Change.org, that it is overreach “[t]o conflate acts of vandalism against property with acts of terrorist violence against human beings.” The Oklahoma Democratic Party has also spoken out against the charges.
By charging such property damage as terrorism, the prosecutor radically increased the potential sentence as well as the required bond.
What is curious is that others were charged with rioting (and at least one with assault on an officer) but Prater charged these individuals with terrorism. I do not see the dividing line between the cases.
Isael Antonio Ortiz, 21, is accused of burning an Oklahoma County sheriff’s van and attempting to burn a bail bonds business with others. Eric Christopher Ruffin, 26, was accused of encouraging the “wanton destruction” on Facebook Live. He is quoted from the Facebook video as saying every single one of those that kill Black people need to die and “that’s what happens when you got numbers outside.”
This is Ruffin’s second charge. He was accused on May 30th of terrorism in relation to the burning of the van. He was then charged in the bail bonds fire. He went on Facebook Live before turning himself in to declare
“I’m innocent. You dig what I’m saying? We’ve got mounds and mounds of evidence. I didn’t burn nothing. I didn’t set nothing on fire. I didn’t tell nobody to do none of that s—. You dig what I’m saying? And … they’re doing this because, I feel as if … they want a fall person right now. … And it’s wrong. It’s wrong what they’re trying to do to me.”
He was also featured in this interview:
Ruffin’s threat (if tied to criminal acts) comes closest to conventional terrorism charge. I still have some reservations, particularly with the Ortiz case, in treating wanton destruction as terrorism. We have seen thousands of such cases during protests and they have not been treated as terroristic acts. I believe that such charges would be reserved for the narrow category of criminals who use violent to terrorize communities or countries. Ruffin admittedly raises a viable issue, but we need to know more about the context and intent behind that statement. I am still concerned about the use of the charge even with Ruffin even with his reckless and threatening words.
There are very serious charges that can be brought against all of these defendants, including the rioting charges levied against at least six other individuals. I do not see why it is necessary to treat this as terrorism. Terrorism is an offense that is quickly loosening its meaning and cohesion as a criminal charge as prosecutors reframe vandalism, property damage, and rioting as terrorism. It seems as misplaced as calling the 9/11 attacks as a property damage offense. The damage in Oklahoma was done in the rage of a protests following the death of George Floyd. That is no defense but the intent was not to terrorize. If it could be construed as terroristic, then any wanton property damage would become terrorism.
As I have said before, I tend to view these cases through the eyes of criminal defense attorney. However, I cannot see the logic and necessity of framing these crimes as terroristic acts.