ORLANDO – Libertarian activist Mark Schmidter was arrested today for handing out jury nullification flyers to prospective jurors in front of the Orange County Courthouse.
Although Schmidter has been handing out the flyers since last September, there has been an administrative order in place since Jan. 31 banning the practice. Until today, though, the order has never been enforced.
Susan Soto, public information officer for the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, confirmed that Schmidter was arrested this morning by sheriff’s deputies, but referred all questions about the arrest to the Orange County Courthouse. Karen Levey, spokesman for the courthouse, said Schmidter was arrested and arraigned this afternoon in the court of Chief Judge Belvin Perry.
“Judge Perry had his (Schmidter’s) arraignment today at 1:30, and he was released on a $2,500 bond,” Levey said. “He was charged with indirect criminal contempt.”
Schmidter was then transported to the Orange County jail, Levey said. Schmidter, 64, was booked into the jail at 4:10 p.m.
Judge Perry, who is also presiding over the Casey Anthony murder trial, had issued an administrative order last January banning anyone from handing out written material to prospective jurors on the grounds that it represented a form of jury tampering. The order may have been directed at Schmidter, who had spent the previous four months visiting the courthouse to hand out flyers from the Fully Informed Jury Association, or FIJA, which encourages them to engage in jury nullification — or voting to acquit someone of a crime even when the evidence strongly indicates the person is guilty.
FIJA’s goal is to encourage jurors to vote not guilty if they disagree with or disapprove of the law the defendant is being charged with. That result, the organization based in Montana believes, will send a message to state and federal lawmakers that there are too many victimless crimes that people are being prosecuted for.
Schmidter endorsed the concept and spent four months handing out the flyers every Monday morning in front of the courthouse — until Perry issued his order on Jan. 31.
The American Civil Liberties Union responded with a lawsuit challenging the judge’s order, which FIJA supported. Schmidter had started handing out the flyers again this month, as the media swarmed onto the Orange County Courthouse for the high profile Anthony trial. This morning, though, he was arrested, said James Cox, the community organizer for FIJA’s Fort Lauderdale office.
“All I heard was basically that Mark was at the courthouse passing out information, and the police went to arrest him,” Cox said. “Mark responded by lying on the ground. As soon as they mentioned they were arresting him, he just laid down on the ground and went limp and didn’t resist.”
Cox said what surprised him about this arrest is that Schmidter has been going to the courthouse for months now, often with Julian Heicklen, a libertarian activist from New Jersey who has been engaging in civil disobedience since the 1940s. Although the two men defied Judge Perry’s order numerous times, neither one was ever arrested.
“They’ve been going out there for weeks doing this, and Julian has been out there for a while,” Cox said. “Maybe it’s because there were not enough (media) cameras around.”
FIJA had actually discouraged Schmidter from distributing the flyers at the Orange County Courthouse because of the judge’s order. Cox said the association preferred to let the ACLU challenge it on free speech grounds, and was worried that if Schmidter got arrested it would discourage other activists from distributing the FIJA flyers in the future.
“FIJA’s stance on this is the courthouse should have been left alone” until the constitutional issues were resolved, Cox said.
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