Jury Finds Chase 5 Not Guilty Because Defendants Had Reason to Believe They Weren’t Breaking Trespass Law

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Danielle Simmons, Liam Wright, Sarah Svobodny, Hudson William-Eynon and Michael Stevens, known as the Chase 5, were found not guilty of trespass by a jury in Seattle March 15. The five, members of Occupy Seattle, entered a Chase Bank branch in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle on November 2, 2011. A lawyer for the defendants explained that the deciding point in favor of the defendants was that they had some reason to believe their actions were lawful.

In an action timed to coordinate with the visit of JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon at another location in Seattle, the five entered the bank branch, chained themselves together, and used a lockbox of the type banks use to hold keys for locked foreclosed homes to bind the chain.

In a November 2 statement declaring the action, they explained:

“We, independent members of the Occupy Seattle movement, are occupying this Chase bank to interrupt business as usual. We are here to show you that the polished, sanitized spaces of our day-to-day lives are places of horror. Banks don’t simply add arbitrary fees to debit cards or double your interest rates. They perpetuate poverty. They drive homelessness, and with it joblessness and the denial of healthcare. They force people out of homes through sub-prime lending and foreclosures, gentrifying neighborhoods in their wake by investing in real estate and construction firms that build condos and drive up market rates. They help make your “up-and-coming” neighborhoods whiter and wealthier and dispossess everyone needed to make them so.”

Shortly after chaining themselves together inside the bank, 200 marchers arrived at the bank for a demonstration outside. The branch was locked down following this, and customers were informed that they should leave. The branch remained closed for the rest of the day. The five were charged with 1st degree criminal trespass.

During the trial before a six member jury, the City of Seattle, which brought the charges, put the manager of the Chase Bank branch on the stand as well as three members of the Seattle Police Department. One had worked as a private security guard for Chase Bank that day, in uniform.

David Handcock, a lawyer for the defendants, explained that the successful defense rested upon two components:

Firstly, that the property was open to the public for a specific purpose. This is a normal defense against criminal trespass. Mr. Hancock believes that this argument, by itself, would not have elicited the not guilty verdict from all six jurors. Perhaps half, he felt, would have been persuaded by this argument alone. Criminal trespass is defined as entering or remaining on someone’s property without permission. Specific laws vary from state to state. In this particular case, the bank manager never asked the six to leave the bank. Therefore, they were simply in a place open to the public.

• Secondly, and the more weighty of the two arguments, was that under Washington state law, a criminal trespasser must know that their behavior is unlawful. The Chase 5′s lawyers, Braiden Price and Mr. Handcock, argued that the Chase 5 had some reason to believe that their behavior might be lawful. They discussed ways in which JP Morgan Chase has become a “quasi-public institution”: specifically, that they have received funds from the U.S. Treasury, and that they administer government programs such as welfare benefits disbursements.

In arguments away from the jury, they also argued that the second point was related to constitutional rights that made the action lawful. That argument was not allowed to be presented to the jury.

The not gulity verdict was read at 4:15 PM on the third day of trial. Liam Wright, one of the Chase 5 said:

“This is a huge victory for the Occupy Movement. Every step of the way this bank occupation and the follow up has been more successful than we could have ever hoped for. We wanted to make clear to everyone that we don’t want a world defined by banks, we don’t want to live under them. We want to be human beings living together, free from the dead weight of financial profiteering. They act like we will live under the rule of banks and money forever. But they can’t stop us. They can’t jail us.”

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