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Courts / Law

As Protests Continue, What Is A Legal Observer's Role?

Protesters continue to take to the streets around the Tampa Bay area with heightened passion after a Kentucky grand jury decided to not indict any police officers in the death of Breonna Taylor. More often than not, a group of legal observers is trailing them.

At a recent protest in New Port Richey, more legal observers than ever showed up to hold police, protesters and counter protesters accountable by observing and documenting the night’s march.

Ze Liberacion, who helped lead that night’s protest, said legal observers “give an institutional eye to a situation that can be called upon in court, which is a very different situation that when it’s just us, even when we have video – which is a shame.”

Rachel Hagenbaugh, who organized this particular group of legal observers, attributed the relatively quiet night with no arrests and no citations to their presence.

“They’re (the police) a lot friendlier. They’re playing the non-biased job they’re supposed to be playing.”

RELATED: Racial Tensions Escalate In New Port Richey As Protests Continue

What is a legal observer?

Legal observers are individuals, often law students, legal workers, or attorneys, who serve as witnesses to civil demonstrations. They keep notes, record video, and take photos to ensure individuals are able to practice their constitutional right to peaceably assemble.

“They are there to observe the event and be a set of eyes and ears that provide a deterrent to anybody that might feel inclined to act appropriately,” said James Michael Shaw, Jr., a Tampa attorney.

Rachel Hagenbaugh BLM Legal Observer DM 092920.jpg
DAYLINA MILLER/WUSF PUBLIC MEDIA
Rachel Hagenbaugh organized a group of legal observers during a Black Lives Matter in New Port Richey in September.

“And also to document what happened in the event that somebody gets arrested or there are charges brought or somebody commits a crime. The legal observers then would become witnesses who could appear in court and tell the jury what they saw.”

Legal observer training groups recommend they only attend a demonstration when asked to by organizers.

Legal observers are also encouraged to wear clothing and hats that clearly mark them as a legal observer so that police can easily identify them.

Do you have to be trained or certified?

While there are no legal requirements for legal observers, groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and National Lawyers Guild have been offering training for decades. ACLU training in Florida is temporarily suspended in some parts of the state due to the coronavirus, but individual lawyers across Florida have continued to offer trainings online.

What can’t legal observers do?

Legal observers cannot carry signs, participate in protests, argue with law enforcement officers or interfere during arrests.

They’re discouraged from talking to reporters, and live-tweeting or streaming rallies.

Why do civil liberties groups feel legal observers are important?

Proponents of legal observers say it keeps police in check.

“Bad things are done in the dark. So we're in Florida, we have this expression that ‘sunlight disinfects.’ So the thought is a police officer is much less likely to engage in misconduct,” Shaw Jr. said. “If the police officer knows that very close by are three or four, well-trained professional, white collar legal observers who are watching their every move and documenting it."

Legal observers attend a variety of assemblies, not just the ones with which they personally agree.

“I like to say that the Constitution is a legal document. But it's more than that; it is a social pact to come to one another's aid when any of the rights in this list of rights is being threatened.” Shaw Jr. said. “The right to protest, the right to peaceably assemble, our sacred rights that that no one should lose - people that you agree with or people that you disagree with.”