An Orange County judge postponed the trial of a UNC student activist Monday, while prosecutors weighed whether to pursue the case, and a memo from the Chapel Hill police chief questioned the necessity of the arrest.
On Nov. 30, police arrested graduate student Tamara Tal at a protest outside the Burger King on Elliot Road, charging her with failure to disperse. The protest was part of a national day of action in solidarity with farmworkers who pick tomatoes for Burger King.
Tal, a member of Students for a Democratic Society, says she arrived at a chaotic scene at the fast food restaurant as the protest was ending. She says officers were aggressively interrogating some demonstrators, and that demonstrators asked police to identify themselves, but they refused.
"I made it halfway across the street to my car when they arrested me," Tal says.
Arresting officer Charlie Shehan didn't attend Monday's hearing reportedly because he was sick, but a Feb. 29 memo from Police Chief Brian Curran to Town Manager Roger Stancil—which Tal's counsel, civil rights lawyer Al McSurely, filed with the court—outlined the police response. "Officer Shehan, at random, picked out one of the protesters in the crowd who seemed to be refusing to disperse and directed her to leave or risk arrest," Curran wrote. When Tal allegedly didn't leave the protest, Shehan arrested her, the memo reads, adding "No force beyond the use of soft hand techniques was used."
Curran continues: "In hindsight, had officers begun to clear away from the restaurant, the protesters probably would have left without incident and the arrest would not have been necessary."
Curran's memo outlined how police should handle future demonstrations. He stated that demonstrators should be allowed to exercise their First Amendment rights, and the rights of private property owners should be respected.
At Monday's hearing, McSurely filed a motion arguing the ordinance is unconstitutional and vague.
The ordinance reads: "Whenever the free passage of any street, alley or public walkway in the town shall be obstructed ... the person or persons obstructing said passage shall disperse or move on when directed to do so by a police officer. It shall be unlawful for any person to refuse to so disperse or move on."
District Court Judge Stanley Peele denied McSurely's motion and rescheduled the trial for May 12. Orange County Assistant District Attorney Jeffrey Nieman offered to drop the charges if Tal agreed to certain conditions. McSurely refused.
"Having a trial every now and then is useful," McSurely said later. "It reminds people that these laws have to be administered."
Nieman said he's unsure whether he will proceed with the case.
McSurely and Tal left the hearing and entered a courtyard with more than 20 supporters.
"It's really shameful we can't have a peaceful protest in Chapel Hill," said Tony Macias of Student Action with Farmworkers.
Four officers watched quietly from the sidelines. Sgt. Danny Lloyd was the ranking officer during most of the Nov. 30 protest. "I'm sorry that they view us doing our job as doing harassment," Lloyd said.