This is a quick guide to a few legal issues surrounding protesting in NYC. Though one of this booklet’s authors is a law student, none of us are currently lawyers. We’ve done our homework, though, and what follows should help you navigate the tricky legal aspects of protests. For more info, check out the websites of the NY Civil Liberties Union ( and the NYC National Lawyers Guild ( In writing this section, we sure did.


            First things first: If you or someone you know gets arrested, call the National Lawyers Guild hotline at 212-679-6018. Know this number. Write it on your arm before you participate in a protest action. Provide NLG with the name of the person who was arrested and state your name and phone number clearly. If you can, get the names and phone numbers of any witnesses, especially people who have pictures or video. You can also pass this info on to any of the folks in the bright green hats.


            Dealing with Cops: You probably already know that Zuccotti Park is a privately-owned public space, making it something of a legal gray area. It’s unclear what rules (and whose rules) the police have a right to enforce. That said, the moment of arrest is not the best time to bring up legal arguments to the cops, as they generally won’t care. They are going to follow their orders regardless of your persuasive abilities. Your interactions with police should be respectful. While an unjust mass arrest makes them look bad, one person getting arrested for “antagonizing” a cop makes us look bad. If you feel that an officer has said or done something incorrect or illegal, you can state your opinion and attempt to discuss it with them, but in the heat of the moment, this is unlikely to get you far. It is better to document what occurred and file a complaint if necessary. Most importantly, keep your cool and never engage in any behavior that they might regard as threatening.


            Protesting: You have the right to engage in peaceful protest, but there are legal restrictions, and some things require permits. The OWS folks have legal support and know what they’re doing.  If you’re unsure whether a permit is needed or has been obtained for an activity, ask an organizer. To learn more about obtaining permits, go to Events with more than 20 people in a public park, marches down the street, and the use of amplified sound, among other things, require a permit. Marching down the sidewalk does not, but you must keep at least half of the sidewalk open for people to pass by and refrain from blocking the entrances to buildings. Even if you follow the rules, there may be times where the police will incorrectly prohibit you from a location. You can try to explain yourself or ignore them, but if you do the latter, make sure you are prepared and willing to be arrested.


            Getting Arrested: If you are an immigrant, have outstanding warrants, or are on parole or probation, it is probably in your best interests to minimize your chances of getting arrested. You are more valuable to the movement when you are not in jail (or facing deportation), even if that means you have to participate from a distance. When a police confrontation is expected, consider carefully whether or not you are willing to be arrested. If you are not, that’s nothing to be ashamed about. There are plenty of other ways to help.  When arrest is possible, the most important thing is to remain calm. Tensions can run extremely high, especially during mass arrests. Cops will over-react when they fear they are losing control of the situation. Suppress the instinct to fight back if you are being beaten, or to dive in and help if someone else is. Do not do anything that they might interpret as resisting arrest, and never even lay a finger on a cop. You could end up facing a felony charge for assaulting an officer for something as minor as taking a cop’s hat. You can try to (respectfully) disagree with what they are doing, but it’s unlikely to help in the heat of the moment. If something bad is happening, record it on your camera or your phone – recording the police is legal in New York (but, absurdly, is not in every jurisdiction). Be smart about what you post online. Anything you post on YouTube, Twitter, etc., could be found by the authorities and used in a trial against yourself or other criminal defendants.


            Practice saying the words: “I do not consent to a search. I have the right to remain silent. I wish to speak with an attorney.” If you are detained by the police, ask if you are under arrest. If they say no, you are free to go. Without a search warrant, cops don’t have the right to search your property (with some exceptions, like when you’re on the subway). If a cop asks to see what is in your bag and you don’t wish to show him or her, state that you do not consent to a search and say it loudly enough for witnesses to overhear. After being arrested, they can search you and go through your bag. If you’re participating in an action that could end in arrest, be careful about what you’re carrying on your person. Even after you are arrested, you do not have to answer any questions, but you are probably in for a long stay if you don’t give them your name and address. Don’t give them a fake one. When asked a question, assert your right to remain silent, and ask for an attorney before you answer any questions.


            After Arrest: The New York Lawyer’s Guild is a great source of legal support and information, and you should be in contact with them after your arrest. Their website has some useful tips for handling things post-arrest. If you object to the legality of your arrest, you may want to file a complaint with the Civilian Complaint Review Board. If you will have a criminal trial, though, you probably want to wait until afterwards to do this.

            You may receive a “Desk Appearance Ticket” or a summons during your arrest, which tells you the time and location of your arraignment. You must attend this hearing in person or there will be a bench warrant for your arrest. You can bring an attorney. If you plan to plead not guilty, you should definitely get an attorney. You can hire a private attorney, or get one through Legal Aid, NLG, or the court. Violations, like disorderly conduct, are not crimes and carry a maximum penalty of $250 in fines and 15 days in jail (most likely, you’ll pay a $120 fine plus some fees). The City can decide to charge you with crimes in addition to what is stated on your ticket.

            Several things could happen during your court date. You could plead guilty and pay the fine, the charges against you could be dismissed for some reason, you could plead not guilty and choose to go to trial, or you could receive an ACD (Adjournment Contemplating Dismissal). An ACD is neither a guilty plea nor a finding of innocence – it means that the charges will be dismissed and the record will be sealed as long as you don’t get arrested again for six months. You don’t have to come back to court again, which is good if you live out of state or just want to get things over with. On the other hand, your case is finished, you can’t contest the charges against you, and your options for litigation against the City are limited. If you are on parole, on probation, or an immigrant, an ACD may have other consequences for you – definitely talk to an attorney. And remember, if you get arrested at OWS or elsewhere within six months, the charge will be re-opened.

            The important thing is to understand your choices, with the help of an attorney if necessary, and carefully think things through.

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Know Your Rights

It's not fun to be this guy. Pic courtesy of The Inquisitr.



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