Judge considering dismissal of Arab Fest missionary case

Photo by J. Patrick Pepper

Photo by J. Patrick Pepper

Attorney Robert Muise (left) makes his case for dismissal to 19th District Judge Mark Somers at a preliminary hearing on Aug. 30. Muise represents four christian missionaries who were arrested and charged with breach of peace at the Arab International Festival in June. At right is Dearborn Assistant City Attorney William DeBiasi and to the rear are two of the missionaries, David Wood (second from left) and Nabeel Quereshi.

Times-Herald Newspapers

DEARBORN — Nineteenth District Court Judge Mark Somers last week said he needs to see more evidence before deciding whether to dismiss misdemeanor charges against four evangelical Christians arrested in June at the Arab International Festival.

At an Aug. 30 preliminary hearing for defendants Nabeel Qureshi, David Wood, Negeen Mayel and Paul Rezkalla, their attorney argued for dismissal, saying their arrests were unjustified and constituted a violation of the First Amendment.

The four were arrested June 18 for breach of peace after a festival volunteer filed a complaint against them for allegedly surrounding him with video cameras and refusing to leave him alone.

Video of the arrests taken shortly after the volunteer incident, shot by Wood, Rezkalla and Mayel, shows a large group of young Arab men surrounding Quereshi. Quereshi was answering questions about Christianity and addressing his removal from the festival in 2009 and the viral YouTube video it spawned.

Moments before a storm-related evacuation of the festival, police said the crowd appeared to be growing “potentially riotous” and arrested the evangelists.

“It’s utter nonsense,” said Robert Muise, as Wood and Quereshi sat behind him nodding in agreement. “These people were having a conversation with other people about their faith, practicing their First Amendment rights.”

Rezkalla and Mayel were not present.

Somers questioned the point at which public safety concerns trumped free speech rights, and whether Muise’s argument had done enough to clearly establish a free speech violation.

“What is it that would allow the court to make a factual determination to prevent this from going to a jury?” Somers asked.

Muise replied that police had no basis for arrest in the first place.

“If there were concerns about public safety, police should have dispersed the crowd,” he said.

The public-safety-versus-free-speech argument is expected to play a key role in the city’s prosecution if the case goes to trial. At the hearing, Assistant City Attorney William DeBiasi cited two cases where courts found in favor of festival organizers over plaintiffs who alleged first amendment infringements.

But after more than an hour and a half of probing, often constitutionally-based legal discourse, Somers requested that both sides submit more evidence. By Monday the city was expected to submit for the court decisions from the cases cited by DeBiasi.

Muise also was expected to submit higher-quality audio from the video or Mayel’s arrest.

Somers’ office said he hoped to have a decision on dismissal by Friday, but a Sept. 20 trial date still is scheduled.