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Prosecutors drop charges against 7 arrested in Zooey Zephyr protests

Jul 27, 2023

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The criminal cases against the seven people arrested during protests in support of Missoula Democratic Rep. Zooey Zephyr in the latter days of the 68th Legislature were dismissed this week after Lewis and Clark County prosecutors filed motions to drop the charges, according to court documents and lawyers for the defendants.

All seven of the defendants were arrested and cited for criminal trespassing by Montana Highway Patrol officers on April 24, and each was released from the county jail without bond later that day. All of those arrested pleaded not guilty, and none of the cases went to trial.

“When I got the email, I called my partner and said, ‘Big update: The charges against me have been dropped on account of me being right and them being aware of it,’” McKenzie Carter, a 25-year-old from Missoula who was arrested that day, told Montana Free Press this week. “The fact that they dropped the charges indicates to me that they think this is a waste of their time and that we didn’t do anything wrong.”

It was not immediately clear why the Lewis and Clark County Attorney’s office moved to dismiss the charges. The motions state that doing so would be “in the interest of justice.” Multiple requests for comment from County Attorney Kevin Downs and Deputy County Attorney Deanna Rothwell were not returned this week.

Colin Stephens, an attorney for two of the defendants, said this week there was no “great lawyering on [his] part,” just that he thought the county was doing the right thing.

Another of those arrested, 23-year-old Missoula resident and American Civil Liberties Union of Montana staffer Paul Kim, said this week that the prosecutors’ decision confirms “the reaction many Montanans had to the events of April 24: Peaceful protesters in our state’s Capitol should never be met with excessive force from hostile law enforcement in full riot gear.”

Crowds gathered in the gallery of the Montana House of Representatives that day to protest informal disciplinary action against Zephyr. House Speaker Matt Regier had repeatedly not recognized the lawmaker during floor debates after she suggested Republican lawmakers would have blood on their hands if they backed an ultimately successful bill to ban gender-affirming care for transgender minors in Montana. Regier maintained he was upholding decorum and suggested that he would again recognize Zephyr, the first transgender female legislator in state history, if she apologized, which she said she wouldn’t do.

When Regier again passed over Zephyr during debate, protesters drowned out the speaker’s gavel with chants of “Let her speak,” and some threw disposable gloves covered in fake blood on the floor — a reference to Zephyr’s earlier comments about the gender-affirming care bill. Regier ordered the gallery closed, and law enforcement — both state troopers and baton-wielding members of the Lewis and Clark County Sheriff’s Office Civil Disobedience Team — swept in, arresting those who didn’t clear the area. Zephyr, meanwhile, stood on the floor with her microphone raised toward the crowd.

Protesters temporarily shut down business in the Montana House of Representatives Monday after Republican leadership again refused to call on Rep. Zooey Zephyr, extending an ongoing standoff stemming from the transgender lawmaker’s comments last week against a bill to ban gender-affirming medical care for transgender minors.

House Republican leadership condemned the protest as a “riot by far-left agitators.” No damage to property or injury to any individual was reported. The GOP-led House later voted on party lines to bar Zephyr from the House floor, gallery or anteroom for the remaining days of the session. She retained her ability to vote, albeit remotely.

In an interview this week, Regier criticized the decision by county prosecutors to drop the charges.

“I stand by what I said before,” he said. “It’s obvious. It’s on video, the House was shut down. It’s still a riot, and I think they should still be charged with criminal trespass. We need to have justice.”

In her own statement, Zephyr congratulated the protesters and reiterated her belief that Regier’s decision not to recognize her on the floor locked her constituents out of the democratic process.

“To all of those arrested at the protest: I am grateful for your dedication to democracy and overjoyed to see that the charges against you were dropped,” she said. “When I find the strength to stand up in the Legislature, I do so knowing that I am standing in solidarity with a long history of those who stood up to defend democracy. That history now includes each of you.”

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Gov. Greg Gianforte is asking a Lewis and Clark County district court judge to dismiss a lawsuit challenging his veto of Senate Bill 442, major bipartisan legislation from the 2023 session that reallocated marijuana tax revenue to conservation and county road projects.

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Raised in Arizona, Arren is no stranger to the issues impacting Western states, having a keen interest in the politics of land, transportation and housing. Prior to moving to Montana, Arren was a statehouse reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times and covered agricultural and trade policy for Politico in Washington, D.C. In Montana, he has carved out a niche in shoe-leather heavy muckraking based on public documents and deep sourcing that keeps elected officials uncomfortable and the public better informed. More by Arren Kimbel-Sannit

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