In the latest chapter of a bizarre prosecution which some see as an attack on dissent, the DuPage County State’s Attorney yesterday dropped reckless conduct charges alleging that two local peace protestors threw unidentified objects from a bridge over I-355 — and substituted a disorderly conduct charge alleging that they stood on the bridge and “made a throwing motion in the direction of vehicles” which caused a disturbance of the peace.
On May 6, Jeff Zurawski and Sarah Hartfield placed a 12-foot banner reading “Impeach Bush and Cheney – Liars” along with an upside-down flag on a pedestrian underpass over I-355.
DuPage County sheriff’s deputies arrived, saying they were responding to a call that things were being thrown from the overpass; one became very upset about the content of the signs and the display of the flag and said he would pursue the matter with the state’s attorney’s office, Zurawski said.
Three weeks later he was arrested, held for seven hours, and charged with disorderly conduct. Hartfield turned herself in for booking a few days later. In July two additional charges were added: reckless conduct, for throwing unknown objects on the highway, and unauthorized display of a sign. Both were Class A misdemeanors, each punishable by a year in jail and a $2,500 fine.
In response to a motion by defense attorney Shawn Collins to dismiss the charges, prosecutors on Wednesday dropped the reckless conduct and unauthorized display charges but added a second disorderly charge, citing a complaint from motorist Charles Harin alleging that the defendants stood on the overpass and “made a throwing motion in the direction of vehicles.”
The start the jury trial requested by the defendants, previously set for October 15, was postponed; a preliminary hearing on the new disorderly charge will be heard then instead. (The charges are enumerated and discussed, and a timeline of events given, here.)
“This prosecution is a fraud and an attempt to suppress dissent,” said Zurawski. “Out of thousands of people who drove by and saw us, one guy got pissed off at what he saw and wanted to cause us some grief, so he called 911 with a fake story that we were acting like we were throwing things, which we weren’t….
“One of the deputies apparently had personal problems with our message and he wants to punish us and threatens us….
“Then the state’s attorney’s office — could it be they have a problem with the message my friend and I were displaying?”
On the other hand, he said, “what we wanted to do is express our opinion and send a message, and as a result of this case the the subsequent press coverage, our message has gotten out way further and wider than it would have, and we’ve met a whole lot of good people as a result.”
In a letter to DuPage County State’s Attorney Joe Birkett, the DuPage Peace Through Justice Coalition noted that it had participated in “expressway bannering” numerous times with the assurance of attorneys and police officers that it was legal.
The complaint against Zurawski and Hartfield cites specific actions — staging an antiwar protest and hanging the flag upside-down — “that are clearly protected under the First Amendment,” the group wrote, calling on Birkett to drop all charges against the two.
For more: Kevin Lindemann, DuPage Peace Through Justice Coalition, 630-336-1968