published Friday, November 11th, 2011

Gov. Bill Haslam seeks to drop Occupy Nashville protestors’ charges

State Police arrest Occupy Nashville protestors early Friday morning Oct. 28, 2011 at the site where a few dozen Wall Street protesters have been encamped for about three weeks. Authorities began moving in early Friday using a newly enacted state policy that set a curfew for the grounds near the state Capitol, including Legislative Plaza where the protesters had been staying in tents. (AP Photo/JOHN PARTIPILO\ - THE TENNESSEAN)
State Police arrest Occupy Nashville protestors early Friday morning Oct. 28, 2011 at the site where a few dozen Wall Street protesters have been encamped for about three weeks. Authorities began moving in early Friday using a newly enacted state policy that set a curfew for the grounds near the state Capitol, including Legislative Plaza where the protesters had been staying in tents. (AP Photo/JOHN PARTIPILO\ - THE TENNESSEAN)
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

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Should charges be dropped against the Occupy protesters in Nashville?

NASHVILLE — Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam will ask prosecutors to drop charges against dozens of Occupy Nashville protesters arrested last month for trespassing, his office said Thursday.

Haslam spokesman David Smith said the decision to dismiss the charges against 55 protesters was made in light of a federal judge’s ruling that the state couldn’t enforce the new curfew on the grounds around the state Capitol.

“We will proceed under the assumption that the temporary restraining order will be extended in one form or another,” Smith said in an email. “As the order provides, the state is not constrained in the interim from enforcing existing laws designed to preserve public safety and health.”

State troopers used the curfew to arrest protesters the nights of Oct. 28 and Oct. 29. Both times a Nashville magistrate refused to jail the protesters, saying the state lacked probable cause to arrest them. They were released with citations.

Protester Steve Reiter said Haslam’s decision is “probably the best thing to do.”

“Also, that gives the protesters and the government a chance for a fresh start, which I think is probably well overdue,” he said.

ACLU of Tennessee legal director Tricia Herzfeld called the administration’s decision “encouraging.”

“We look forward to an announcement from the district attorney when the court hears our motion to dismiss on Monday,” said Herzfeld, an attorney that’s part of the protesters’ legal team.

Meanwhile, emails obtained by WTVF-TV indicate a top official at the Tennessee Highway Patrol was worried that the cost of operations against Occupy Nashville protesters would hurt troopers’ efforts to prevent traffic fatalities this holiday season.

“We’re coming up on the heavy holiday travel time and we could lose a great deal of the momentum we have gained in our fatalities by making the troopers burn time and not be on the road,” Lt. Col. Derek Stewart said in the Oct. 28 email.

Col. Tracy Trott, the THP’s commander, has said the operations involving more than 70 troopers on each of two nights wouldn’t cost the state any extra money in terms of overtime.

Safety Department spokeswoman Jennifer Donnals said Thursday that overtime was a consideration as part of a “a long-term plan to secure Legislative Plaza,” but that it was decided that it wasn’t needed.

“The THP is always concerned about diverting resources from its daily responsibilities for unplanned situations,” she said.

Protesters who began camping in downtown Nashville more than a month ago acknowledged increasing problems with homeless people who had become attracted to the site. They asked the state for help in preventing thefts and assaults by homeless people, but Safety Commissioner Bill Gibbons said after the first round of arrests that the state doesn’t “have the resources to go out and in effect baby-sit protesters 24-7.”

The new overnight curfew was announced and posted around the Capitol grounds on the afternoon of Oct. 27, though there was widespread confusion over whether the state would immediately enforce the new rules.

An email from Stewart noted that The Tennessean had reported a one-day reprieve for the protesters, and asked “we need clarification ... are we a go or no?”

A later email to THP leadership to inform them that 100 protesters and up to 10 tents remained on the plaza that evening, drew at least one exasperated response. “Good grief,” responded Deputy Safety Commissioner Larry Godwin, the former Memphis police director.

The emails also show that the Safety Department conducted what it called “covert assignments” to infiltrate the Occupy Nashville protests. Assistant Safety Commissioner David Purkey instructed one of his staffers and a trooper to “report to the Capitol parking area in ‘blend in’ clothing prepared to assist CID with intel gathering in advance of extraction to be handled by THP sometime early morning.”

Gibbons and others were supplied with a running tally of events, including the number of protesters — and reporters — gathered on the plaza.

The reports from the undercover troopers on the evening of the second arrests note the comings and goings of patrons at an adjacent theater and that the protest was largely “peaceful.”

After the first set of arrests around 3 a.m. on Oct. 28. Trott reported to Gibbons that they had gone smoothly, and the safety commissioner appeared pleased.

“Good work,” he responded at 3:25 a.m.

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