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City sheriff's office renews sidewalk permit for trials in Gray case

City sheriff's office renews sidewalk permit for trials in Gray case
Sheriff's deputies surrounded the courthouse after scuffles with protesters following the verdict of a mistrial in the Freddie Gray case. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

Baltimore's Transportation Department has again granted the city sheriff's office a months-long permit to control public sidewalks around the downtown courthouse where the trials of six police officers charged in the arrest and death of Freddie Gray are scheduled.

The sheriff's office, responsible for security at the Circuit Court building, received the permit April 25 to temporarily "utilize the footway" in the 100 block of Calvert St. during proceedings in any of the officers' cases — including the trial of Officer Edward M. Nero, which began May 12 and is set to conclude with a verdict Monday.

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The permit is valid until Aug. 1, a period that covers Nero's trial and the scheduled trial dates of three other officers. It is valid from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. during any proceedings in the Gray case, according to the permit, which the Transportation Department provided to The Baltimore Sun.

The sheriff's office received a similar, five-month permit in December before the start of Officer William G. Porter's trial, the first in the Gray case. At the time, the other officers' trials were scheduled for the period covered by that permit. They were later rescheduled.

Gray, a 25-year-old black man, died April 19, 2015, from spinal injuries suffered in police custody. The officers have pleaded not guilty.

During Porter's trial, sheriff's deputies repeatedly cited the permit in demanding that reporters and photographers, including those from The Sun, move away from the courthouse and off the public sidewalks around it — even as members of the public walked there freely.

During protests that erupted after Porter's trial ended in a hung jury and mistrial, sheriff's deputies continued to cite the permit in demanding that protesters and the media move off the sidewalk.

Maj. Sabrina Tapp-Harper, a sheriff's office spokeswoman, said at the time that the permit allowed deputies to move protesters if "we deem necessary."

David Rocah, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Maryland, called the permit "ridiculous." Such permits, he said, are "meant to protect demonstrators' rights, not the rights of the government, which has no First Amendment rights."

He said demonstrators can be prevented from blocking access to the courthouse, but that is true with or without a permit. If demonstrators are not blocking access and are on a public sidewalk, sheriff's deputies cannot cite a permit to negate people's constitutional rights, he said.

"If they interfere with people's right to demonstrate, based on this permit or something else, we would be very concerned about that and very interested to hear about it," he said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Alison Knezevich contributed to this article.

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