Anthony Marvin, center, a member of Jewish Activists in Maine, fires up a crowd of about 30 protesters before marching to the federal courthouse to await a trial verdict and sentencing hearing for four Mainers who were arrested in June during a protest at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection office in South Portland. Cecelia Corey, left, was one of the four who were sentenced. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

A federal judge ordered four people to do 25 hours of community service each as a penalty for a protest outside the U.S. Customs and Border Protection office in South Portland in 2018.

U.S. Magistrate Judge John Rich found the four guilty of failure to obey a lawful order, a Class C misdemeanor, the lowest petty offense under federal law. But he declined to impose a fine or jail sentence, saying he recognized their acts constituted civil disobedience. The group received the citations during a demonstration against the Trump administration policy of separating parents and children at the southern border.

“While the law was violated, it was done not only in a nonviolent way, but even in a respectful way,” Rich said.

The four protesters – Jessica Stewart, Rev. Jodi Cohen Hayashida, Matt Bear-Fowler and Cecilia Corey – appeared for their verdict and sentencing at U.S. District Court in Portland on Friday afternoon. More than two dozen people marched to the courthouse to support them, and many sat on the benches during the hearing.

The protest had been organized by Mainers for Accountable Leadership and the Maine Poor People’s Campaign. Rich said that federal officials gave the group permission to demonstrate on a lawn near the South Portland office, but some protesters tried to enter the building vestibule in hope of speaking with people who worked there and asking them to denounce family separation. While most protesters returned to the lawn when federal law enforcement agents asked them to, the four who were charged remained in the parking lot. They were warned and fully understood that they would be cited if they did not leave, the judge said. He characterized the behavior of everyone involved as polite and nonviolent.

The judge heard evidence at trial nearly a year ago, and then the parties submitted written arguments. Rich apologized for the delay in resolving the case before he announced his guilty verdict Friday and turned to sentencing.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Lizotte said he did not think the maximum penalty of 30 days was appropriate, but he did ask the judge to sentence three of the four defendants to two days in jail. He requested five days for Stewart because she has a prior conviction for the same offense. He said incarceration would prevent other people from committing similar crimes and promote respect for the law.

“We do think that there is a valid deterrent,” Lizotte said.

Defense attorneys Logan Perkins and Leonard Sharon asked the court to impose a lesser penalty – or none at all – for their clients. They emphasized the moral obligation the four protesters felt to condemn the Trump administration policy, and they said the threat of jail did not deter their clients on the day of the protest.

“This court need not impose that type of sentence on these individuals to encourage respect for the law,” Perkins said. “I think these are individuals who respect the court deeply, who treated the law enforcement officers they came into contact with with the utmost respect. However, they do not respect what they see, and what I think history will agree with them on, as an immoral federal policy of separating children from their parents.”

Two local faith leaders spoke in defense of the protesters, and all four made brief statements to the court. They spoke about their faith and their own families, and they told the judge they did what they believed was right.

“I thought that was one small step that I could take to stand in solidarity with those children at the border and to fulfill my obligations as a parent, as a member of the Catholic faith and as a citizen of the United States,” Stewart said.

When the judge left the courtroom, the crowd assembled there began to cheer.

Note: This article was updated Jan. 27 at 1 p.m. to make clear that, while protesters attempted to enter the building, they never actually went inside.

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