RI ACLU Director calls felony charges against alleged Christopher Columbus statue vandals “deeply disturbing”
PROVIDENCE, RI (WLNE) – The Rhode Island American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is blasting the Providence Police Department for charging the three alleged Christopher Columbus statue vandals with felonies rather than misdemeanors.
The statue was vandalized earlier in June.
ACLU Director Steven Brown called the felony charges “deeply disturbing” in a letter he sent to the Providence Police Chief Hugh Clements, Providence Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare, and Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Neronha.
In the letter, Brown also demanded the charges be dropped saying they could have potentially serious consequences in the future.
“Charging a person with a felony as opposed to a misdemeanor has very, potentially very serious consequences,” Brown said in an interview with ABC6. “If you’re convicted of a felony, you can be denied all sorts of benefits, jobs, a variety of other very important things that one uses and needs in society. So police charging authority really ought to think carefully before they actually charge someone with a felony and not do it if there really isn’t a strong basis for doing so.”
One of the three alleged vandals is a Pawtucket teacher who is on administrative leave pending an investigation.
Here is the full letter that Brown sent:
“Rather than being arrested for a misdemeanor offense of vandalism for splashing paint on plywood, all three people were instead charged with two felony offenses that carry a potential maximum sentence of six years in prison. Whether this overcharging was done to make it easier to get the defendants to waive their right to a trial and plead to a misdemeanor or just out of pure malice will likely never be known. What is clear, however, is that the underlying felony charges border on the ridiculous. Specifically, the three individuals have been charged with ‘desecration of [a] grave,’ a statute appearing in a section of the General Laws dealing with ‘Graves and Corpses.’ The second felony charge is for conspiring to commit the first felony.
“In relevant part, the ‘desecration’ statute makes it a felony to willfully and maliciously deface any tomb or monument, or anything intended for the protection of the tomb or monument, that is ‘placed or designed for a memorial of the dead.’ It also authorizes an order of restitution for any ‘expense of repairing the grave.’ The Columbus statue may be many things, but to equate it to monuments found in cemeteries stretches the wording of the state law beyond the breaking point.
“Charging people with crimes should not be a game where points are awarded for coming up with the most serious possible charge imaginable, however far-fetched. While we are confident that these three individuals will never be convicted of this offense, they will always have to live with the fact that they were arrested and charged as felons. This is not justice. It is a blatant abuse of police authority, and one that happens all too often and needs to stop.
“To put this charge in more perspective, it is worth noting that in the past year, two Providence police officers have been charged with assault, one involving allegedly hitting a man several times after he had been handcuffed, and the other a domestic dispute that landed the alleged victim in the hospital. Both officers were charged with misdemeanors.
“This case demonstrates that, as the city, state and country grapple with issues of police accountability, the abuse of the broad discretion that police often have in deciding what charges to lodge against suspects deserves very thorough scrutiny as well.
“We ask that you immediately act to have the felony charges against these three defendants dropped. In addition, we ask that you promptly conduct a thorough review of the Department’s charging practices to prevent further travesties like this from happening.”