What to Do If You Face Charges of Rioting

Legal advice for charges related to protesting in Washington, D.C.

Protesting is one of the most fundamental American rights. Under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, you have the right to assemble and express your views. That being said, authorities can put some limited restrictions on activities. Further, some types of conduct are still unlawful—even if done in support of the most righteous cause. 

In Washington, D.C., there have been reports of law enforcement cracking down on protests. NBC Washington notes that more than 40 people were arrested during a night of protest in August of 2020—and several of them were charged with rioting.

“Often, protestors believe that just being out there with people who are damaging property or causing public disruption is not going to lead to an arrest,” says Terry Eaton, a criminal defense attorney in Washington, D.C. “It's not always the case. Recently, police have rounded up those persons who they believe have destroyed property, participated in rioting or looting, and/or committed disorderly conduct, in addition to other people who were just bystanders.”

Eaton explains that, in this “arrest the block” approach, police often lump everyone together in the arrest paperwork and don't do a good job of listing individualized probable cause for each person arrested. “In the past, the prosecutors have gone forward with those cases, even if they are later dismissed,” he says. “An arrest can be a major disruption to your life and will remain on your record for at least 24 months in Washington, D.C., except under certain circumstances. So, if you are around people breaking the law—or suspected of breaking the law in a protest situation—you could be innocently rounded up and it could create headaches for you trying to reverse what has happened.”

Rioting is a serious offense in the District of Columbia. Here is what you need to know about rioting charges and protests in the district.

Washington, D.C. Law: Rioting or Inciting a Riot

Rioting can be treated as a felony offense in Washington, D.C. Under the Code of the District of Columbia § 22–1322, a protester can be arrested for and charged with rioting or inciting a riot if the following three criteria are met:

  1. They were part of a public disturbance that involved at least five people
  2. There was tumultuous and violent conduct or the threat of serious danger
  3. Persons or property were placed at risk.

In the district, a person convicted of willfully rioting or inciting a riot can be punished by a prison sentence of up to 180 days. They may also face fines and other criminal sanctions. The criminal penalties increase dramatically if someone suffers serious bodily harm or there is more than $5,000 in total loss. In those cases, the maximum prison term is ten years. It is important to emphasize that $5,000 in property damage is a very low threshold for heightened rioting penalties.

Three Steps to Take if Charged with Rioting After a Protest

A rioting charge is no small matter. If you were arrested and charged with rioting, it is imperative that you take the situation seriously. Here are three things to do if you are arrested and charged with rioting during a protest in Washington:

  1. Do not attempt to resist arrest. Resisting an arrest is a serious risk and it could result in additional criminal charges.
  2. Remain silent. You have no legal obligation to make a statement to police or answer their questions. What you say can be taken out of context or otherwise used against you to support a rioting charge.
  3. Seek professional help from an experienced criminal defense attorney. A Washington, D.C. criminal defense lawyer will protect your rights.

The best way to deal with a protest-related rioting charge will depend entirely on the specific circumstances of the case. Protesters facing an arrest need personalized representation and support. An aggressive legal defense is required when the rioting charges are false, illegitimate, or not supported by the evidence.  Eaton notes that persons arrested do not have to answer to questioning. “Once you are arrested, you are only obligated to identify yourself,” he says. “You don't have to discuss the circumstances of your arrest with the police, [who will] sometimes engage you, ask questions and then the police report will state you spontaneously uttered those statements. 

And, of course, hiring an attorney quickly after an arrest can help secure video footage from both police cameras and private surveillance. “Also, it's more likely to get witnesses to testify for you if you can get their contact information and statements soon after arrest,” Eaton says, adding, “hiring an attorney will make it more likely you are not preventatively detained pending trial and can help ensure you get the least amount of release restrictions, should you be released.”

For more information on this area of the law, see our civil rights overview, as well as our criminal defense overview.

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