Justice Department: Sedition Charge May Apply to Violent Protesters

Justice Department: Sedition Charge May Apply to Violent Protesters
Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen (R), and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Andrew Wheeler, speaks during a news conference at the Justice Department in Washington on Sept. 14, 2020. (Susan WalshAFP via Getty Images)
Isabel van Brugen

The Department of Justice’s second-in-command on Sept. 17 released a memo standing by an earlier directive made by Attorney General William Barr asking federal prosecutors to consider sedition charges against violent protesters.

Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen issued the letter to the nation’s federal prosecutors Thursday, saying he and Barr are urging federal prosecutors to use the full definition of “seditious conspiracy” to hold to account individuals involved in such activity amid the civil unrest plaguing the nation, according to the Wall Street Journal.

“Unfortunately, despite valiant efforts by federal, state, and local law enforcement authorities, we still see the results of and continued instances of violent rioting in cities across the United States,” Rosen wrote.

Rosen said he wanted to “re-emphasize” an initial directive made by Barr last week during a conference call that was leaked to the press. Barr was reported to have called on prosecutors to take action over concerns that violence could worsen in the countdown to the Nov. 3 presidential election, the Journal reported.

The deputy attorney general in his letter said that individuals can be charged under the “seditious conspiracy” statute, which makes it a crime to plot to overthrow the U.S. government or wage war against it, in a number of instances, and carries a penalty of up to 20 years imprisonment.

If prosecutors are not able to prove individuals are plotting to overthrow the government, the rarely used law still applies to conspiracies with either opposing by force the authority of the U.S. government; preventing, hindering, or delaying the U.S. authorities from enforcing the law; or seizing, taking, or possessing any property of the United States contrary to the authority, Rosen outlined.

The law, Rosen wrote, can be used in instances, for example, “where a group has conspired to take a federal courthouse or other federal property by force.” Federal property was incessantly targeted in Portland, Oregon, amid clashes between rioters and law enforcement officers this summer.

Rioters cut through a steel fence at the Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse in Portland, Ore., on July 24, 2020. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP Photo)
Rioters cut through a steel fence at the Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse in Portland, Ore., on July 24, 2020. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP Photo)

U.S. authorities have used the law to successfully prosecute people who traveled overseas to fight U.S. forces after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001.

Prosecutors also brought sedition charges against nine members of an anti-government militia in 2010 who were charged with plotting a violent uprising. That case was later dismissed due to the facts of the case, and not because of any infirmity in the law itself, Rosen said.

Rosen continued to describe some of the behavior that has occurred across the United States in recent months as “dangerous” and “sometimes deadly acts of violence.”

The attorney general, meanwhile, has been pushing for individuals who incite violence during protests to face federal charges where possible.

Barr has blamed the violence on left-wing “Antifa” activists. Prosecutors have also brought charges against members of right-wing militia groups involved in protests. Last month, Barr described Antifa as a “revolutionary group” like the “Bolsheviks” who toppled Tsarist Russia 100 years ago, and it seeks to establish socialism or communism in the United States.

Rosen denounced the misrepresentation and criticism of the leaked directives by some media reports, and said that he didn’t want U.S. attorneys to be discouraged them.

“I know that you share my disappointment over selective leaks of internal Department communications and deliberations which seem designed to misrepresent what the Department is actually doing to protect the rights and interests of the American people,” he wrote. “I hope that you take comfort in knowing that the overwhelming majority of the Department’s employees continue to perform their jobs in an ethical manner.”

Rosen noted that Barr’s directives would encourage department employees to continue assisting state and local law enforcement authorities who shoulder the primary responsibility in responding to the violence gripping numerous U.S. cities.

Reuters contributed to this report.
Isabel van Brugen is an award-winning journalist. She holds a master's in newspaper journalism from City, University of London.
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