PORTLAND, Ore. — Dozens of protesters arrested during mass demonstrations in downtown Portland have had their criminal charges dropped and cases closed.
KGW analysis of police and court records shows the Multnomah County District Attorney’s office dropped charges against at least 59 of the roughly 400 protesters arrested since mass demonstrations started in Portland in late May.
Most of the dropped charges were misdemeanor offenses such as interfering with a police officer, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest.
Nine cases dismissed by prosecutors involved more serious felony charges, including riot, arson and theft in the first degree.
In one case, Portland police arrested a 25-year-old protester for allegedly setting fire to a Chase Bank in downtown Portland on May 30, the second night of large-scale protests in the city. The Portland resident was charged with arson, criminal mischief and riot. KGW is not naming the person because charges have been dismissed.
A Multnomah County prosecutor described in a probable cause affidavit how the person bragged about using a Molotov cocktail to start the fire and talked about plans to go "out on another mission and the goal would be to set another fire.” When confronted by detectives, the person admitted being present when the fire started but denied setting it, according to the court documents.
A Multnomah County grand jury heard evidence in the case and declined to return an indictment. All charges were dropped.
It is not clear why other cases were closed.
Charges can be filed later if they are submitted within the statute of limitations – the time limit allowed by law.
Prosecutors sometimes delay filing because they need additional investigation or police reports have not been forwarded to the DA’s office.
Through a spokesperson, retiring Multnomah County District Attorney Rod Underhill declined to comment.
Mike Schmidt, who assumes the office on August 1, previously said he would consider dropping charges against nonviolent demonstrators once in office.
“My approach is really going to be thoughtful and review the cases and think about what prosecutions are necessary for public safety,” Schmidt reaffirmed during an interview with KGW.
Schmidt noted many other protest cases that are still open have been delayed due to COVID-19 concerns and temporary court closures at the downtown Justice Center, creating a huge backlog.
Schmidt said once in office he plans to work with experienced prosecutors in the Multnomah County DA’s office to decide how to handle protest cases.
“Really to ensure that our resources are best spent to ensure public safety,” said Schmidt.
Over the past two months, Portland police have provided almost daily accounts of alleged criminal activity surrounding demonstrations, including a list of names of people arrested, their ages and charges.
KGW’s review of court and jail records found most of those suspects do not spend any time in jail; instead, they’re often given a citation or booked and released.
On June 15, Portland police issued a press release detailing the arrest of 14 adults related to overnight demonstrations. The protesters ranged in age from 19 to 52 years old. The charges listed by Portland police included disorderly conduct, interfering with a police officer resisting arrest, escape in the third degree.
Court records indicate charges against all 14 defendants have been dropped and their cases are closed.
“What that does is it makes arrests meaningless,” said Josh Marquis, former Clatsop County District Attorney.
The former prosecutor was not involved in these decisions and believes it would be unfair to give demonstrators who violate the law a free pass.
“It is incomprehensible to me that you could have downtown Portland destroyed the way it has, tens of millions of dollars in damage, and say, ‘Well, there’s no accountability for that,” explained Marquis.
Prosecuting protest cases are not always a slam dunk, said criminal defense attorney Viktoria Safarian.
“A lot of times because of the Portland community being so liberal we see people acquitted of low-level charges,” Safarian said.
Safarian explained police officers have broad discretion whether to arrest someone during a protest. For example, an officer could charge someone with misdemeanor disorderly conduct for blocking traffic, but that decision doesn’t always hold up in court when scrutinized by a jury.
“Were they intentionally obstructing traffic?" Safarian asked. "Or were they actually, intentionally screaming their First Amendment rights – whatever they are saying, like ‘Black Lives Matter’ – and not intentionally obstructing traffic when doing that?”
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler believes prosecutors have a duty to go after the most serious crimes related to protests.
“If people are engaged in serious criminal activity- things like arson or boarding up a building and trying to set it on fire, those people should absolutely be criminally prosecuted,” said Wheeler. “If you don’t, that encourages people to engage in further acts of criminal activity.”