Updated: Charges dropped for nine UMW student protesters

by | Jun 12, 2024 | ALLFFP, Fredericksburg, University of Mary Washington

Update, June 13 at 4 p.m.:

According to a press release from Fredericksburg Commonwealth’s Attorney Libby Humphries, the three non-student demonstrators entered pleas of no contest to misdemeanor trespassing charges on Thursday. Their charges will be dismissed at a hearing in December, contingent upon the completion of 20 hours of community service, among other requirements, according to the release.

Original story:

Charges against the nine University of Mary Washington students arrested for trespassing after refusing to leave a campus encampment in Jefferson Square in April have been dropped.

According to a motion for nolle proesqui filed on June 6 in Fredericksburg General District Court by Commonwealth’s Attorney Elizabeth “Libby” Humphries, misdemeanor charges against the students, who were protesting violence in Palestine, were withdrawn for two reasons.

“First, the victim wishes this,” the motion reads. “It is the UMW community that most directly suffered the situation.”

A footnote in the motion states that since the arrests, Humphries “has been in regular communication” with UMW President Troy Paino, including multiple phone calls and a May 2 meeting at her office. During a meeting with another group of students three days following the arrests, Paino claimed that their arrested peers would only face a low-level academic violation.

Secondly, Humphries contends in the motion, “the interests of justice in this case are best served by diverting the student defendants into the student conduct process without formal prosecution in court.”

A phone call seeking comment from Rebecca Winn, a Hampton-based attorney representing several of the students according to court records, was not immediately returned.

The motion also outlines several factors that shaped the events leading up to April 27. Around 6 p.m., Virginia State Police Troopers and UMW Police descended upon nine students and three non-student community members — who’d locked arms and begun singing in front of their tents.

UMW junior Amirah Ahmed, one of the students who was arrested, described the experience during the public comment portion of the May 14 Fredericksburg City Council meeting.

“A little over two weeks ago, I was cuffed with zip ties by Virginia State Troopers, Fredericksburg City Police and UMW Police,” Ahmed said. “The crime that I’m being accused of is trespassing on my own campus — which I pay for — while peacefully protesting to turn eyes to Gaza.”

According to the motion, UMW “does not have an existing rule or regulation barring tents or encampments in connection with a demonstration or other constitutionally protected speech.” That claim is consistent with a review of the school’s expressive activity policy undertaken by Free Press reporters in May following the arrests.

However, authorities’ risk assessments “rapidly changed” after a social media post invited “an unknowable number of individuals and tents to join,” according to the motion. According to Sgt. Brent Coffey, a public information officer for the Virginia State Police, UMW Police contacted a VSP area office on April 24 “to request assistance with providing additional personnel” in anticipation of an encampment being erected.

At all points prior to the arrests, the UMW demonstration “was always completely peaceable,” the motion states, “and the students were entirely peaceable when arrested.”

The motion notes that the student organizers donated food from the encampment to a local nonprofit.

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