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In "uncommon" move, judge steps in to halt trial of Detroit water protesters

Dec 2, 2015

Members of the "Homrich 9."
Credit via d-rem.org

In an unusual move, a Wayne County judge has stepped in to halt a trial in progress in a lower court.

Two Detroit activists are on trial for disorderly conduct, a criminal misdemeanor, in 36th District Court.

They were part of a group of people arrested in July 2014 for protesting Detroit’s mass water shutoffs.

The case was about to go to the jury, but city lawyers, unhappy with the proceedings, wanted a mistrial. District Court Judge Ruth Garrett denied the request.

So on Monday, the city — without the defendants’ or their attorneys’ knowledge — went to Wayne County Circuit Court, and asked Judge Michael Hathaway for a temporary stay, which he granted.

On Tuesday, Hathaway, after hearing arguments from both sides, agreed to a further stay while he sorts out the city’s objections to the district court case.

In the meantime, the trial itself is on hold. The jury was set to start deliberating a verdict after a nearly two-week trial.

Julie Hurwitz, a defense attorney for some of the self-proclaimed “Homrich 9” protesters, called the city’s actions “ridiculous” and “unbelievable.”

"Their [the city’s] strategy — orchestrated from the top decision-makers for the city of Detroit — from day one has been a political one,” Hurwitz said. “[They are] absolutely and totally bound and determined not to allow the truth about what’s going on with these mass water shut-offs in this city to come to light. And that’s what this trial did."

"They’re taking advantage of their authority, and their relationship with the court, to abuse both the law and the court to their political ends."

Michigan is one of just a few states that allows for mid-trial appeals, says Peter Henning, an expert on criminal procedure at the Wayne State University law school.

“It can be done, but it’s quite uncommon,” said Henning, adding that the city is “playing with fire, [because] if the stay is lifted, the judge can enter an acquittal.”

The city is using every means it has to force a mistrial, Henning said.  

“This is very aggressive, especially for a misdemeanor case,” he added. “They are pushing it to the limit. It has real symbolic value.”

City lawyers are upset with the direction the case took, telling Judge Hathaway Tuesday it had “gone off the rails.”

Judge Garrett allowed the defendants to mount a defense based on claiming that their actions — blocking trucks tasked with shutting off water to Detroiters behind on their bills — was an act of civil disobedience meant to prevent “imminent harm” to vulnerable people.

It was unclear Tuesday when or whether Judge Hathaway would allow the lower court case to proceed.