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Protesters who staged a sit-in at Susan Collins’ office to serve 24 hours in jail

Callie Ferguson | BDN
Callie Ferguson | BDN
A federal court officer stands beside Sophia Ridgely Fuller, 71, of Belfast; Sharon Dean, 71, of East Machias; and Jessica Stewart, 38, of Bass Harbor on Friday, May 11. The women were found guilty of failing to comply with a law enforcement officer's order to leave the Margaret Chase Federal Building last year when they staged a sit-in inside Republican Sen. Susan Collins office. The group gathered to protest Collins' support of a sweeping GOP tax bill overhaul, which passed with Collins' backing.

Three women who staged a sit-in inside Republican Sen. Susan Collins’ Bangor office last December will spend 24 hours in jail for disobeying repeated orders to leave the premises.

A federal judge ruled on Friday that the women remained inside the office illegally when they refused an order to leave the Margaret Chase Smith Federal Building at 202 Harlow St. They had gathered there on Dec. 18, 2017, to protest Collins’ support of a sweeping GOP tax overhaul bill.

The women will spend their day in jail this weekend. The short sentence reflected the recommendation of their lawyer, Logan Perkins, and what U.S. Magistrate Judge John Nivison felt was appropriate, given the peaceful nature of their protest.

“They’ve been very clear that this was an act of conscience for them,” Perkins told Nivison.

Each woman faced a maximum penalty of 30 days in jail and a $5,000 fine.

When Friday’s sentencing hearing concluded, Jessica Stewart, 38, of Bass Harbor, and Sharon Dean, 71, of East Machias left the courtroom and headed downstairs to be processed and booked at the Hancock County Jail.

Nivison allowed Sophia Ridgely Fuller, 71, of Belfast to serve her time on Sunday, which is Mother’s Day, “in solidarity for those mothers who cannot feed their children in Maine,” she said.

The women, who knew they faced arrest by staging the sit-in and who opted to go to trail over the charges, said Friday that their disobedience was compelled by “moral obligation.”

“I believe we may have made the office uncomfortable, but being poor is uncomfortable,” Fuller said.

The Dec. 18 sit-in was one of several that took place that month urging Collins to vote against the tax overhaul, which critics said would lower taxes for wealthy people but hurt middle and low-income Americans. The bill passed in the days after Collins backed it.

The group was arrested at 5:30 p.m. — a few hours after Collins announced her support the bill, and a half hour after the senator’s Bangor office closed to the public.

After staff asked them to leave, a U.S. Federal Protective Service officer gave the group — which initially included Dean’s husband, Harper Dean — repeated orders to evacuate. Only Harper Dean agreed to leave, and the three women were placed under arrest.

Fuller, Stewart and Dean then faced the option of paying a $130 fine, but chose instead to fight the charges. Stewart wanted to “put the tax bill on trial,” she said Friday.

During the four-hour trial on March 12, Perkins argued that her clients had been lawfully exercising their First Amendment rights.

She also accused the staff at Collins’ office of treating her clients differently than five tax bill protesters who staged a sit-in on Dec. 4. She said Collins’ staff suffered from “tax bill fatigue” in the wake of the repeated protests.

In the case of the Dec. 4 protesters, the Federal Protective Service did not make the arrest, but called Bangor police instead. That meant the group was charged in state, not federal, court. Penobscot County District Attorney R. Christopher Almy decided not to prosecute the group, and in exchange, they each paid $100 to charity.

The federal charges seemed to break from a precedent in such a way that was “designed to deter further free speech activity in the senator’s office,” Perkins argued.

Nivison’s ruling on Friday rejected both arguments.

He said it was within the federal officer’s authority to order the group to leave the building, which has clear signage indicating when it is open to the public.

And that order did not infringe on the group’s First Amendment rights, nor was there evidence to support that it was motivated by the circumstances surrounding the protest, Nivison said. He called the federal charges “substance neutral.”

Stewart, who said she plans to attend a rally in Bar Harbor after she is released from jail on Saturday, said the group is unlikely to appeal the verdict.

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