Judge refuses to toss key charge in Capitol riot case

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FILE - Insurrections loyal to President Donald Trump climb the west wall of the the U.S. Capitol, Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington. A federal judge has refused to throw out a key charge against two men accused of storming the U.S. Capitol to obstruct Congress from certifying President Joe Biden's electoral victory. U.S. District Judge Dabney Friedrich ruled on Friday that an obstruction charge applies to the Justice Departments case against Ronald Sandlin and Nathaniel DeGrave. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File)

A federal judge has refused to throw out a key charge against two men accused of storming the U.S. Capitol to obstruct the Electoral College vote certification proceedings, upholding prosecutors' use of a criminal statute that many other riot defendants are charged with violating.

U.S. District Judge Dabney Friedrich ruled on Friday that an obstruction charge applies to the Justice Department's case against Ronald Sandlin and Nathaniel DeGrave. Defense lawyers have asked other judges presiding over Capitol riot cases to dismiss the same charge on related grounds.

An indictment charges Sandlin and DeGrave with obstruction of an official proceeding on Jan. 6, when a joint session of Congress convened at the Capitol to certify President Joe Biden's electoral victory. The indictment alleges Sandlin and DeGrave broke the law by stopping or attempting to stop the proceeding from going forward by engaging in disruptive conduct, including assaulting law enforcement officers.

In asking Friedrich to dismiss the obstruction count, attorneys for Sandlin and DeGrave argued that Congress’ certification of the electoral results did not constitute an “official proceeding” and that the men did not “obstruct, influence and impede” the proceeding.

The judge disagreed, ruling that Congress’ joint session to certify the electoral results constituted an official proceeding under the law. Friedrich also concluded that the obstruction charge covers a broader set of acts than what the defense lawyers contended.

“The indictment in this case alleges obstructive acts that fall on the obviously unlawful side of the line,” the judge wrote.

However, on Saturday, Friedrich deferred ruling on whether the same obstruction charge applies in a separate case against Guy Reffitt, a Texas man accused of leading a group of rioters up the Capitol steps to confront law enforcement officers. The judge said it is unclear, based on the indictment alone, what actions Reffitt allegedly engaged in to obstruct the congressional proceeding.

“For this reason, the Court is inclined to defer ruling on his vagueness challenge until the facts have been established at trial and the jury has had an opportunity to consider that evidence,” Friedrich wrote.

The obstruction charge is a felony punishable by a maximum of 20 years imprisonment. Jacob Chansley and Paul Allard Hodgkins, two rioters who pleaded guilty to the same obstruction charge, were sentenced to 41 months and 8 months in prison, respectively.

Former President Donald Trump nominated Friedrich to the court in 2017.

A day before Trump's Jan. 6 “Stop the Steal” rally, Sandlin and DeGrave drove to Washington, D.C., with two pistols, knives, a stun gun, walkie talkies, bear mace and paramilitary gear, according to prosecutors. The men pushed several Capitol police officers guarding a door to the Capitol rotunda and went to the Senate gallery, where they wrestled with officers to get inside, prosecutors said.

John Pierce, an attorney for DeGrave, a Las Vegas resident, declined to comment on the ruling. A lawyer for Sandlin, a Tennessee resident, didn't immediately respond Monday to an email seeking comment.

Approximately 700 people have been charged with federal crimes related to the Capitol riot.

Donovan Crowl, an Ohio man charged with conspiring to attack the Capitol with other members of the anti-government Oath Keepers, has asked a different judge to throw out the obstruction charge against him. Applying the obstruction statute to somebody like Crowl "will chill the First Amendment rights of all Americans." his lawyer, Carmen Hernandez, said in a court filing Monday.

Friedrich's ruling on Friday “mentions the First Amendment only once in passing without addressing whether the defendant’s protest activity on January 6 was protected by the First Amendment or the First Amendment implications of stretching the obstruction statutes in a novel manner beyond any application in 100 years of obstruction prosecutions,” Hernandez wrote.