Somers declines dismissal in evangelist lawsuit

Civil suit in the works, attorney says

Times-Herald Newspapers

DEARBORN — Nineteenth District Judge Mark Somers last week denied a motion to dismiss breach of peace charges against four Christian evangelists who were arrested at the 2010 Arab International Festival, sending the controversial case to a jury trial.

Attorneys were expected to begin jury selection on Monday after press time for this story, and the trial itself could stretch into next week, depending on how much evidence is presented.

The defendants – Nabeel Qureshi of Virginia, Negeen Mayel of California and New Yorkers Paul Rezkalla and David Wood – in June pleaded innocent to the charges, with Mayel also pleading innocent to an additional count of failure to obey a police officer’s order. Both offenses carry maximum penalties of 93 days in jail and a $500 fine.

The four were arrested on June 18 after an Arab Fest volunteer filed a criminal complaint alleging they surrounded him, badgered him with questions while videotaping the incident and ignored his requests to be left alone, according to the police report.

When police went to seek the group for questioning, they found Qureshi encircled by about 30 mostly young, Arabs talking about Christianity as Mayel, Rezkalla, and Wood filmed the conversation, according to police reports and video footage. Citing a crowd that was growing “potentially riotous,” police subsequently arrested all four and dispersed the onlookers.

The case has been a lightning rod for controversy. Critics of the arrests have cast it as a clear-cut case of Christian persecution in a city with a sizable Muslim population, and the city justifying the arrests as a matter of public safety.

At a pretrial hearing Aug. 30, the evangelists’ attorney Robert Muise argued the charges should be thrown out primarily for two reasons: because police had no probable cause to arrest the defendants, and that the video the defendants shot provided irrefutable evidence of their innocence. Muise also suggested at the hearing that police were motivated by a desire to prevent the defendants from espousing their religious beliefs.

Somers, in a 10-page ruling, disagreed, writing that police had probable cause to arrest the group because officers only need to demonstrate a “reasonable suspicion” that a breach of peace occurred in order to make a lawful arrest. The harassment complaint by the festival volunteer constitutes a “reasonable suspicion” under state and local laws, Somers reasoned.

To the claim that the videos constituted “irrefutable evidence,” Somers concluded that would be something best decided by a jury after both sides have had a chance to present their case.

“The scene is variously portrayed … as anything from a moment on the verge of riotous behavior, to a deliberate attraction and congregation of a crowd obstructing and disrupting the flow of pedestrians, to a welcome and peaceful dialogue,” Somers wrote.

“In short, whether the defendants were actively committing a breach of the peace at the time of their arrest is quintessentially a question of fact for the jury.”

As for Muise’s First Amendment argument, Somers said it could be addressed at trial.

“Whether the content of the defendants’ speech at any given time is otherwise relevant to the defense or prosecution of the cases is not an issue the court is required to pass (judgment) upon at this juncture, and may in any event likely be dealt with through appropriate jury instructions,” the ruling said.

Muise said in an interview Thursday he was disappointed by the ruling and filed a motion to reconsider, though he acknowledged the motion likely wouldn’t change Somers’ decision.

“I think that the judge missed an opportunity to right this situation,” Muise said. “But we’re ready to go to trial, and I’m confident we will be able to convince the jury that my clients were acting in a peaceful manner.”

Whatever the verdict in the district court trial, it likely won’t be the end of the legal wrangling. In the event the jury does find the evangelists guilty, Muise said he would file an appeal. And separate from the criminal proceedings, Muise said he currently is putting together a federal civil suit against the city.

Legal experts say it could be a tough case for the city.

“(The evangelists) have a very strong First Amendment claim,” said attorney Robert Sedler, a constitutional law professor at Wayne State University. “A city can put reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions (on free speech), but from what I’ve seen it looks like (the evangelists) were just walking around talking to people. The government can’t restrict speech because it is an unpopular message.”