August 25, 2011 | by Lou Chibbaro Jr.
Dan Choi protest trial set for Aug. 29

Former Army Lt. Dan Choi (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Former Army Lt. Dan Choi is scheduled to stand trial in federal court in D.C. on Aug. 29 for his November 2010 arrest for handcuffing himself to the White House fence in protest of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law.

In a little noticed development, 12 other LGBT activists who were arrested with Choi in that protest accepted a government offer in May to undergo a six-month period of probation after which prosecutors promised to drop the charge against them and expunge their arrest record.

Choi said he rejected the offer and requested a trial, where he said he intends to defend what he calls his First Amendment right to stage a peaceful protest in front of the White House for a “just” cause.

According to Choi, who has emerged as a nationally recognized gay activist, the government offer created tension between him and some of the other protesters. He said prosecutors initially said the offer would only be extended if all 13 people arrested in the Nov. 15, 2010 White House protest accepted it.

“The 12 that were arrested with me are my friends,” Choi told the Blade. “So this prosecution tactic tried to rip us apart.”

In a last minute decision, prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney’s office agreed at a court hearing in May to allow the other 12 arrestees to obtain the probation agreement even though Choi refused the offer.

Choi said he fully understands the decision by the others to accept the government offer, noting that the “harsh” charge brought against all of them could potentially lead to a prison sentence.

Defense attorneys called a decision by prosecutors to charge the protesters with a federal misdemeanor count of failure to obey a lawful order by police to remove their handcuffs from the White House fence an unusually severe action. The attorneys noted that the federal charge carries a maximum penalty of six months in jail and would result, upon conviction, in the protestors having a permanent criminal record.

Several of them were fearful a criminal record could jeopardize their jobs or prevent them from getting future jobs, Choi said.

Prosecutors in the past have filed the same charge of failure to obey a police order to disperse against protesters at the White House. But they filed the charge under a D.C. municipal ordinance, which doesn’t carry a jail sentence and doesn’t result in a permanent criminal record, the lawyers said.

Choi spent three days in jail last week for joining a group of environmentalists in yet another arrest action at the White House in a protest against a proposed oil pipeline to run from Canada to Texas that opponents say would damage the environment.

Choi’s trial on Aug. 29 is expected to last two days and include a number of witnesses for the prosecution and the defense. Choi said his defense will focus on what he feels is an unconstitutional law used for his arrest.

Lou Chibbaro Jr. has reported on the LGBT civil rights movement and the LGBT community for more than 30 years, beginning as a freelance writer and later as a staff reporter and currently as Senior News Reporter for the Washington Blade. He has chronicled LGBT-related developments as they have touched on a wide range of social, religious, and governmental institutions, including the White House, Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, the military, local and national law enforcement agencies and the Catholic Church. Chibbaro has reported on LGBT issues and LGBT participation in local and national elections since 1976. He has covered the AIDS epidemic since it first surfaced in the early 1980s. Follow Lou

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