ST. PAUL, Minn. (CN) – The Minnesota Court of Appeals on Monday reversed the nuisance conviction of a protester who helped block an interstate as part of a mass demonstration after the officer-involved shooting death of Philando Castile in 2016.
The traffic-stop shooting gained widespread attention after Castile’s girlfriend, who was also in the car with her then-4-year-old daughter, live-streamed its gruesome aftermath on Facebook.
Castile, a 32-year-old elementary school cafeteria worker, told St. Anthony Officer Jeronimo Yanez during the July 6, 2016 traffic stop that he was armed. Castile had a permit to carry at the time of the shooting.
Dashcam video released by Minnesota investigators shows Yanez pulling his gun out of the holster. The officer said, “Okay. Don’t reach for it then.”
He then yelled twice at Castile, “Don’t pull it out!” before shooting into the car seconds later.
Yanez fired seven shots total, hitting Castile five times and killing him.
Three days after Castile’s death, a mass demonstration was planned to intentionally disrupt traffic on Interstate 94.
Though police tried to block ramps entering and exiting the highway, protesters took down the fences and were able to enter the highway.
Jeffrey Berger, 77, was one of many protesters that evening that were demonstrating on the westbound side of the highway. They stood linked by their arms and chanted.
Monday’s ruling from the Minnesota Court of Appeals, authored by Judge Robert Klaphake, says Berger told police he was going to be arrested and was not going to leave the demonstration.
Even though the officers did not feel threatened by Berger, he and about 40 other people were arrested.
The demonstrators closed I-94 for about five hours.
A jury found that Berger was guilty of public nuisance but acquitted him of an unlawful assembly charge.
Berger argued in court that the state did not prove that he “personally interfered with, obstructed, or rendered I-94 dangerous for passage,” according to the seven-page opinion.
The state appeals court agreed with him.
“Although the state established that demonstrators entered I-94 resulting in the police decision to close the highway, the state failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Berger entered I-94 before it was already ‘interfer[ed] with, obstruct[ed], or render[ed] dangerous for passage,’” Klaphake wrote.
Even though a photo proved Berger was in the traffic lanes, it was taken after dark when I-94 had already been shut down by police, the ruling states.
Klaphake acknowledged the difficulties police face in situations like a mass protest, but said that requiring the state to prove each element of each offense by individual defendants still gives the state recourse.
“The state could have charged Berger with a different offense, such as obstructing legal process or trespass…But the state instead chose to charge Berger under the public nuisance statute, and the evidence presented at trial did not establish that Berger violated that statue,” he said.
Officer Yanez was acquitted in 2017 of manslaughter and other charges brought against him related to the Castile shooting. The jury’s decision prompted days of protests, including one in St. Paul that again shut down I-94 for hours and ended with 18 arrests.
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