A judge on Friday ruled that the curfew hastily enacted by Fredericksburg officials in early June was unconstitutional and that the city had no authority to make violating it a crime.

Judge Gene Woolard made the ruling in Fredericksburg General District Court, at least temporarily setting aside about 50 curfew violation cases that have been a rallying point for local protesters who have been marching and chanting along city streets for about two months.

City prosecutors Justin Witt and Steve Eubank immediately announced that they would appeal Woolard's ruling to the city circuit court.

A group of about 40 protesters gathered across the street from the city courthouse before 8 Friday morning, offering support for those charged and shouting Black Lives Matter chants. By 10:30 a.m., the group was celebrating what they considered a major victory and putting in their orders for pizza.

The city enacted the curfew the first week of June in response to protests downtown stemming from the George Floyd slaying in Minneapolis and other incidents involving alleged police misconduct nationwide. The curfew was lifted several days later, but by then there had been multiple arrests.

The only case actually heard by Judge Woolard on Friday was that of Ryan Vera Brown, who was charged with the Class 1 misdemeanor offense on June 1. Christopher Reyes, one of seven attorneys who agreed to represent those charged for no fee, said Brown agreed to challenge the city's curfew law.

Reyes said he warned Brown that if the challenge was unsuccessful, he would forfeit the city's offer to have charges expunged from the records of the curfew violators after they completed 15 hours of community service. A Class 1 misdemeanor carries the possibility of up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine, though jail time had already been removed as a possibility for many of those charged in the city.

Reyes said his other clients would have likely taken the city's deal had Brown's challenge failed.

Brown was among the large group protesting in the city on June 1. He said he was about two blocks from his home at about 10 p.m. that night when he was arrested.

"[The police] had been ambushing people all night," he said. "It was honestly frightening."

Brown said having the charge pending was stressful, but said fighting injustice made rejecting the city's offer worth the risk.

The other curfew cases were deferred to Oct. 30, by which time a circuit judge hopefully will have ruled on the city's appeal.

Prosecutors argued that the city's charter and emergency management code gave the city the authority to enact a curfew. Reyes argued that only the state legislature or the governor could grant such authority. Governor Ralph Northam authorized curfews for Richmond, Hampton and Virginia Beach during that time frame, but not Fredericksburg.

Keith Epps: 540/374-5404

kepps@freelancestar.com

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