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Prosecutors dismiss charges against Montana Capitol protesters

Zooey Zephyr Protest
Posted at 5:58 PM, Aug 23, 2023

HELENA — Four months after a disruptive protest at the Montana State Capitol ended with seven people arrested, prosecutors have moved to dismiss the charges against all of the defendants.

The protest stemmed from a dispute during the Montana Legislature’s 68th session, between Rep. Zooey Zephyr, D-Missoula, and House Republican leadership. The defendants each faced a misdemeanor trespassing charge, after law enforcement removed them from the state House chambers when they refused to leave.

Lewis and Clark County Justice Court confirmed that judges accepted motions this week from the county attorney’s office, calling for all of those charges to be dismissed without prejudice.

The April 24 protest temporarily stopped legislative action on the House floor. Demonstrators were at the Capitol in support of Zephyr, after House Speaker Rep. Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, repeatedly refused to recognize her to speak on the floor. Republican leaders said Zephyr, a transgender woman, had violated legislative rules of decorum when she said during a floor debate that lawmakers should be ashamed and would have “blood on their hands” for passing a bill banning gender-affirming medical procedures for transgender youth.

On April 24, Zephyr’s supporters disrupted the daily floor session by shouting and chanting “Let her speak!” from the House gallery. Some threw red gloves onto the floor. Regier stopped the session and ordered the gallery cleared, but many protesters remained, as Zephyr stood at her desk, holding her microphone over her head.

Law enforcement officers eventually came through and cleared the demonstrators out. Several were handcuffed, and seven were arrested and charged.

The requests for dismissal from the Lewis and Clark County Attorney’s Office are dated Aug. 14. Each motion says only that “dismissal is in the best interests of justice.”

Zephyr released a statement on social media, calling the decision a “victory for democracy.”

“To all those who were arrested at the protest: I am grateful for your dedication to democracy and overjoyed to see that the charges against you were dropped,” she said. “When I find the strength to stand up in the legislature, I do so knowing I am standing in solidarity with a long history of those who stood up to defend democracy. That history now includes each of you.”

Regier told MTN Wednesday that he was disappointed to hear of the dismissals. He said he still considers the protests to be “riots,” as he described them in the immediate aftermath. He said he questioned the message it would send if there weren’t consequences for those who were arrested.

“The victim here is the state of Montana, and the public that expects law and order in their Capitol,” he said.

Regier said he believes many lawmakers want to see steps taken to prevent this type of disruption in future sessions.