Some Charges Dropped Against Masked Protesters

The Manhattan district attorney’s office dismissed some charges Tuesday against three women who were arrested in August while wearing masks during a demonstration outside of the Russian Consulate on the Upper East Side.

The women had been protesting prison sentences handed down in Moscow to members of the punk band Pussy Riot while wearing the same type of colorful balaclavas often worn by the band members.

When they did not heed police orders to remove the masks, the women were arrested and charged with loitering under a provision that makes it unlawful for three or more people to wear masks in public during a political demonstration. The legality of the 150-year-old mask law has been challenged. The women were also charged with disorderly conduct.

The women — Rachel Weldon, Esther Robinson and Rebekah Schiller — had filed a memorandum of law in criminal court saying that wearing the balaclavas was a form of protected expression and that the stated purpose of the mask law, “deterring violence and facilitating the apprehension of wrongdoers,” was not served by applying it to peaceful protesters.

A spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office, Erin Duggan, said the loitering charges were dismissed “in the interest of justice.” Dismissal in the interest of justice is a legal move that gives prosecutors a way to dismiss a charge without having to respond to arguments made by an opponent.

“Although it is clear that the defendant wore a mask during this protest, with others wearing masks, and did refuse to comply with police instructions to remove it, the People are moving to dismiss the lone count related to this conduct,” a prosecutor told the judge as each of the three women made a court appearance.

The women still face the disorderly conduct charges.

Norman Siegel, a lawyer representing the women, said that he and other lawyers were “committed to challenging the legality of the anti-mask laws in peaceful protest situations where the mask conveys a particularized message and is integral to that message.”

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