As President Donald Trump arrived in downtown Phoenix on August 22, dozens of attorneys were on call ready to defend protesters and rally-goers alike – free of charge.
And they’re likely to be called on again.
Criminal defense attorney Julia Cassels, who sits on the Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice Board of Governors, and ACLU Legal Director Kathy Brody, former president of the Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice, had the same thought after seeing what happened in Charlottesville just days before: Mobilize volunteers to represent anyone charged with a crime related to the rally.
Cassels said they hoped for the best but prepared for the worst, anticipating the possibility of numerous arrests if peaceful protests devolved into violence.
In the five days leading up to that night, 75 attorneys volunteered to be on call. They were on the lookout for felony charges – misdemeanors went to the Phoenix Municipal Court, which was staffed all night to immediately handle those cases – and they agreed to attend initial appearances or arraignments pro bono.
In Maricopa County, legal representation is typically not provided at an initial appearance, when release conditions such as bail or freedom without bail, are set.
If clients chose to stick with the attorneys for the duration of their cases, those arrangements were settled separately.
Immigration attorneys and those who spoke Spanish also were available if non-citizens were detained.
Some were ready to respond from the scene, some remotely. Twenty gathered with Cassels at her office, watching the news together in her conference room. An attorney in Washington got word and sent them pizzas as they waited for trouble.
“The situation felt so unstable that we felt we needed to be ready for anything,” Cassels said.
“The political climate right now is just so divisive, and we are seeing violence all over the country occurring at the Trump rallies. We are seeing people’s free speech being inhibited, and we as a criminal defense firm – no, we won’t stand for it. We need everyone’s rights to be protected, and we need to make sure that if there are overreaches, they need to be addressed.”
Cassels said meetings with Puente Arizona leaders eased her mind. They came prepared, too, with de-escalation training for attendees and peaceful intentions.
But she also knew the Phoenix Police Department had called on every officer to be ready. There would be a large police presence among a tense crowd.
“We all hoped for the best, that we’d just be hanging out and having a fun evening and there wasn’t going to be any trouble,” she said. “However, when Phoenix police started clearing the crowds – I’m exceptionally glad we were all there.”
Four arrests were made that night, one on an unrelated warrant.
On that note, Cassels said news reports have mistakenly included 18-year-old Daireus Stokes among the protesters arrested at the rally. She said the ACLU contacted her about his case, but after sending one of her attorneys to meet him in jail, she learned he was not among the protesters. The Rev. Jarrett Maupin has since taken an interest in Stokes’ case, according to a press release he sent August 30.
The ACLU connected Cassels with people who sought legal help, and volunteer attorneys gave out her phone number, advising people at the scene to write it on their arms in Sharpie.
Brody said counsel has been coordinated for three people so far, including 29-year-old Joshua Cobin, who was arrested on three counts of aggravated assault on a police officer and one count of unlawful assembly.
Cobin was captured in now viral video footage kicking a canister back toward police as it spewed gas. Seconds later, a projectile struck him in the groin, bringing him to the ground where he writhed in pain before another protester rushed to help him.
Cobin called Cassels as the police showed up at his workplace two days later – he had posted about the incident on social media, unwittingly identifying himself.
Cassels said she texted back and forth with him as she tried to intervene, but then the responses stopped.
Cobin has since been released on bond, and Cassels said the unlawful assembly charge was thrown out.
“I often believe police officers are quick to file those kinds of charges in situations where it’s not appropriate,” she said.
The American Civil Liberties Union and Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice have long been partners in defending people’s rights. But with more frequent protests and demonstrations expected throughout the Trump presidency, Brody said this network will be ready to defend First Amendment rights again.
AACJ President Amy Kalman said the protest on August 22 was an example of a peaceful, law-abiding demonstration for the most part. But the next one might not be, and now, they have a legal network ready for when that day comes.t