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Could Protesters Who Shut Down Golden Gate Bridge Be Charged With False Imprisonment?

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Protesters stand on the roadway of southbound I-880 in West Oakland Monday morning.  (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Updated 6:30 p.m. Thursday

An announcement from San Francisco District Attorney Brooke Jenkins that she is considering the possibility of charging a group of pro-Palestinian protesters with a felony for blocking the Golden Gate Bridge on Monday has been met with concern by legal experts and civil rights advocates.

They have also pushed back against Jenkins’ suggestion that people who were stuck in traffic during the protest may be eligible for restitution as possible victims “detained against their will” or “falsely imprisoned” — and should reach out to California Highway Patrol.

These people, Jenkins wrote on X on Wednesday, “may be entitled to restitution + have other victim rights guaranteed under Marsy’s law.

ACLU Northern California’s legal director Shilpi Agarwal called the idea — that anyone disrupted by a protest can seek financial payment from protesters — a “red flag.”

“Lawful protests are, by design, meant to be visible and inconvenient,” Agarwal said. “Lawful protests often create roadblocks or shut down streets or create traffic … The idea that people who suffer that inconvenience are victims and should get money from the protesters is a very dangerous notion.”

What happened after the Golden Gate Bridge protests?

San Francisco and Alameda County prosecutors are still waiting to review evidence from CHP before announcing any charges against the protesters, who were part of an international “economic blockade” to oppose the United States’ financial support for Israel.

Israel’s monthslong siege of Gaza, in response to Hamas’ attack on Oct. 7 that killed some 1,200 Israelis according to Israel’s government, has caused widespread devastation: 33,000 Palestinians — more than 13,000 of them children — have since been killed, according to Gaza health authorities.

Israel’s attacks have also displaced 70% of Gaza’s population, and the United Nations is warning that a famine is approaching. Since the siege began more than six months ago, thousands in the Bay Area have joined rallies and protests demanding a cease-fire in Gaza. (Read more about the decades-long conflict from NPR’s “Middle East crisis — explained” series.)

On Monday, the 12 protesters arrested in a separate protest on two different sections of Interstate 880 in Oakland were quickly released. However, most of the 26 arrested on the Golden Gate Bridge were booked and held in jail for more than 24 hours on suspicion of felony conspiracy.

The felony arrest charge gives Jenkins the opportunity to consider charging the Golden Gate Bridge protesters with a felony. Misdemeanors or infractions are more common charges for protesters, Agarwal said.

“While we must protect avenues for free speech, the exercise of free speech cannot compromise public safety,” Jenkins wrote in a statement posted to X. “I truly believe that there can be free expression while maintaining the safety of our communities.”

CHP spokesperson Andrew Barclay argued the protesters posed a serious threat to public safety.

“Everybody has a right to protest,” Barclay said. “People have a right to express their opinions. No one has the right to go on to a freeway and shut it down.”

In order for the charges to come to fruition, Barclay said CHP needs to speak to individuals “trapped on the bridge as this was happening” and needs “to actually show that there are specific individuals who were in this situation because of the actions of the protesters. And we need to do that in order to be able to meet those standards that will articulate that crime was committed.”

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During an unrelated press conference on climate change on Tuesday, Gov. Gavin Newsom also criticized Monday’s protests: “I don’t think that’s helpful, and I don’t think that’s responsible.”

The governor said that he believed “there are better ways of protesting” and that “people need to be held to account for their actions.”

What do legal voices and advocates say?

The Center for Protest Law and Litigation — which is representing the freeway protesters — has blasted CHP and framed the possible allegations as trumped-up arrest charges meant to silence peaceful protest.

“It’s kind of a way of inflicting a preemptive punishment before charges have even been filed,” said Rachel Lederman, the group’s senior council. “We haven’t seen this in recent years in San Francisco or in the Bay Area.”

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Agarwal of the ACLU is concerned about the language Jenkins employed in the call out, which included “falsely imprisoned” and “restitution.” 

“The only kind of interpretation that I can glean from that is [that] she really wants to dissuade people from exercising their right to protest by sort of heaping on these protesters all kinds of unusual consequences, some of which are financial,” Agarwal said.

“Our concern is that’s really going to have a chilling effect on speech because lawful protesting is inconvenient,” she said. “It is how you draw attention to an issue.”

Lederman added that she thought “it’s a bit far-fetched to charge people with false imprisonment for blocking traffic” — although she said in her experience, restitution is common in criminal cases. She noted that 78 pro-Palestinian protesters arrested after they blocked the Bay Bridge are paying “a very small amount of restitution to one person who had a specific medical bill that they attributed to the traffic blockage.”

Jenkins previously filed charges against those Bay Bridge protesters. However, a judge last month ordered them to pay the restitution and do community service instead of going to trial — a move Jenkins said she had to accept but did not support.

Agarwal said while she could not speak to the details of Monday’s actions, the government can place “reasonable limits on protest” in what is called a “time, place, and manner restriction,” by dictating certain parameters to try to ensure safety.

But “even in a situation where the protester does everything that they’re supposed to do, protests are inconvenient. They absolutely create traffic jams. They absolutely can create streets to shut down,” Agarwal said.

“That is a balance that we have struck in this country where we say we have a First Amendment right to voice our opinion on things, and we are willing to suffer some of the inconvenience that can come from that.”

KQED’s Sydney Johnson and David Marks contributed to this story.

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