I’ll be sure to email this article to the prosecutor involved tomorrow – personally! I’ll tell him he’s an asshole and a disgrace to his office. I was a prosecutor for 5 years; the job is to be FAIR. I cannot believe this one is so stupid!
A federal judge in Tennessee on Friday rejected a federal prosecutor’s attempt to keep a bassist locked up in jail for months over a photo shoot for his anarcho-punk band, telling an assistant U.S. attorney that the federal government can’t keep someone incarcerated before trial simply because that person exercised his First Amendment rights on Facebook.
It was a deeply embarrassing rebuke for Justice Department prosecutors who decided to charge 29-year-old Justin Coffman under a rarely used federal statute amid President Donald Trump’s campaign against the loosely organized anti-fascism protest movement known as “antifa.”
Coffman, a member of the Jackson-based band The Gunpowder Plot, is facing charges under a federal gun law that makes it illegal for drug users to possess weapons. Coffman was a legal gun owner, but a small baggie of marijuana that law enforcement reportedly found in his home would make gun possession illegal. Federal prosecutors have previously used the charge as a way to lock up alleged white supremacists accused of discussing violent racist plots but whose conduct didn’t offer any clear violation of federal law.
Coffman isn’t anything remotely like those suspects. And Jackson isn’t a hotbed of political unrest, just a few wholly peaceful protests. But law enforcement officials, on edge as rioting and unrest broke out cities across the nation after police officers killed George Floyd on May 25 in Minneapolis, raided Coffman’s home because he had posted three images to his band’s Facebook page that showed him posing in front of a Jackson police transport vehicle with what looked like a Molotov cocktail.
Nobody set fire to a police vehicle in Jackson. The antique liquor bottle that Coffman was holding in the photo, he says, was filled with apple cider vinegar and water, and he later used it as a centerpiece when he made dinner for his girlfriend. The professionally shot images weren’t even taken in reaction to the protests; they were snapped before Floyd’s murder by a “concept-based portrait photographer” working under the name December Rain Conceptual Portraiture.
Federal officials knew this before charging Coffman, who had begun selling T-shirts, magnets and stickers featuring one of the photos before his arrest Oct. 13. But federal officers didn’t reveal any of that critical information when they rolled out the case, obscuring the fact that the photos were snapped for a band’s publicity. Instead, U.S. Attorney Michael Dunavant ― a Republican Trump appointee who has posted images of himself alongside the president and at a Trump campaign rally during his time as the top federal prosecutor for the Western District of Tennessee ― held a press conference and put out a misleading press release to tout the “outstanding investigative work” that led to Coffman’s arrest.
It’s been a rough month for Coffman, who has been locked up in Madison County Jail in the weeks since his arrest. But Friday was a bright spot, with about two dozen supporters coming to Jackson’s federal courthouse to show they had Coffman’s back while a representative of the federal government, Assistant U.S. Attorney Hillary Lawler Parham, argued that images from a photo shoot posted on a rock band’s Facebook page made him a danger to the community.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Jon A. York, several people in the court said, appeared deeply skeptical of the government’s argument. York ended up setting what’s considered a very low unsecured bond of $10,000 for Coffman, meaning he can be released from federal custody without posting cash or collateral.
“You couldn’t ask for a better result in federal,” Alex Camp, Coffman’s court-appointed attorney, told HuffPost. “That’s probably one of the best bond awards you can get in that forum, so I was definitely happy with it.”
The government called just one witness: Special Agent Josh Lunn of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). (Coffman had been in touch with an FBI special agent in the months between the raid on his home in early June and his Oct. 13 arrest, and its unclear why an agent from the FBI was no longer involved in the case. Coffman has said the FBI special agent didn’t seem to care about the bag of pot.)
“The judge ruled that he’s not going to lock somebody up over utilizing or invoking his First Amendment rights,” Camp said. “And that’s basically what has happened.”
Coffman told HuffPost that the federal government’s argument was “destroyed” in court. On a GoFundMe page set up by his girlfriend, Leah Harris, Coffman called the charges “bullshit” and said they were a product of “obvious political targeting.” A spokesperson for Dunavant said the U.S. attorney’s office had no comment at this time.
The affidavit in the federal case against Coffman was signed the same week that U.S. Attorney General William Barr urged all of the nation’s top federal prosecutors to charge defendants in protest-related cases whenever possible, as reported by The Wall Street Journal.
Josh Spickler is the executive director of Just City, a Memphis-based criminal justice reform organization that seeks to “create a smaller, fairer, and more humane criminal justice system.” He said he was not surprised that Dunavant apparently was willing to go along with what he called “a charade and an abuse of power in support of Donald Trump’s reelection bid.”
“This man is being targeted because he has views that the president doesn’t like, full stop,” Spickler said. “Michael Dunavant is willing to use the full force and power of the federal government to drag a man into a local jail, and local authorities are going right along with it.”
“It’s just a direct line to the election and Donald Trump, and it’s just appalling that people who are sworn to uphold the law and sworn to protect us believe that this is where our resources should go,” Spickler said.
“He is an awesome individual. He stands for what he believes in, and he does believe in his rights,” Boyd said. “Justin is a good cat, and I stand with him in support.”
Coffman’s next court date in his state case is scheduled for Nov. 9. Camp said there’s a long road ahead on the federal case.
“We won the battle, but we are still fighting a war,” Camp said. That war might get a bit easier, depending on the outcome of the presidential election next week. Former Vice President Joe Biden, who previously pursued a “tough-on-crime” agenda in the 1990s, has since taken a more progressive stance on criminal justice issues. Pursuing a federal case against a musician because of a bag of marijuana found in his home probably wouldn’t line up with the prosecution priorities of a Biden administration.