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Convictions against Albemarle School Board meeting arrestees to stand

More than a year after a contentious meeting of the Albemarle County School Board ended with several arrests, the cases have wrapped up with a conviction and a withdrawn appeal.

The school division’s dress code was the source of protests at the August 2018 meeting. Superintendent Matt Haas has since issued guidelines to school officials that effectively ban Confederate symbols from permissible dress.

Thursday morning, Andrea Massey appeared in Albemarle County Circuit Court to appeal her earlier misdemeanor trespassing conviction.

Janice Redinger, Massey’s attorney, said her client was at the School Board meeting to support her friends and had no plans to disrupt the meeting. Seated in the front row, Massey, along with several others, silently held a sign that read “racists don’t get re-elected,” Redinger said.

While the meeting was going on, various protesters gathered in the foyer outside Lane Auditorium, chanting protests and holding their own “community meeting.”

After the scene in the foyer devolved and several people were arrested on charges of trespassing and other crimes by county police officers, an unidentified woman ran into the auditorium screaming about the arrests, Redinger said. Then-board Chairwoman Kate Acuff told the woman that she was trespassing and had to leave.

Massey would later testify that hearing Acuff dismiss the “clearly distressed” woman upset her and that she said, “You’re ridiculous” to the chairwoman.

Acuff then ordered Massey to leave the auditorium and directed a police officer to remove her, the defendant testified. Massey said she did not know why she was being asked to leave and refused to leave, leading to her arrest.

Redinger argued that Massey’s comment to Acuff did not meet the threshold for disruption at a public meeting. The First Amendment protects speech in public forums, she said, and Massey would have had to repeat or scream the sentence in order to be considered a disruption.

“The volume of her voice was so faint, you can hardly even hear it on the podcast of the meeting,” Redinger said.

Acuff testified Thursday that she had read a statement at the start of the meeting informing the audience that disruptions would not be tolerated and anyone who was found to be disruptive could be charged under state code. The statement had been discussed at a closed meeting prior and was drafted by Albemarle Commonwealth’s Attorney Robert Tracci.

During cross-examination, Acuff said she had not clarified what constituted a disruption, instead relying on the audience’s “common sense” understanding.

James Herring, an assistant commonwealth’s attorney for the county, argued in closing that Acuff had the authority to maintain order at the meeting and that Massey’s actions were willful and disruptive.

“She was asked to leave three times and refused, at which point she was arrested,” he said.

Retired Judge Paul M. Peatross said the question of the case came down to whether Acuff had the right to ask Massey to leave the auditorium based on her statement.

He ruled that Acuff did indeed have that right and he found Massey guilty. She was sentenced to 10 days in jail, all suspended, and given a $50 fine.

Francis Richards, who was arrested at the same meeting on charges of trespassing and obstruction of justice, withdrew his appeal Thursday. He had been set for a trial that afternoon.

In a written statement Thursday afternoon, Tracci wrote that the decision to proceed with criminal charges against the meetings arrestees was his decision alone.

“I am pleased with the outcome of these cases and proud to have led the effort to preserve order, dignity and decorum at Albemarle County public meetings,” he wrote. “I wish to thank the Albemarle County Police Department, School Board and attorneys from this office for their outstanding work on these cases.”

Thursday ends the court proceedings for the School Board arrestees. Fellow arrestee Sabr Lyon, 30, who also was charged with trespassing, had her charges dismissed in June by Judge Cheryl Higgins, who ruled her disruption was different.

While Massey had audibly expressed a disagreement with Acuff, Lyon approached the meeting podium silently with a protest banner. Lyon was not given enough time to leave the podium — approximately two seconds — Higgins wrote.

Two others arrested at the meeting had their charges dropped soon after their arrests.

Michael Reid, who, in addition to trespassing, was charged with assaulting a police officer, accepted a plea agreement in March and received a 30-day suspended jail sentence.

Source: www.dailyprogress.com

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