Pensacola protester carried across bridge invokes 'stand your ground' law
The local demonstrator who was arrested after being carried across the Pensacola Bay Bridge on the hood of an SUV has invoked the "stand your ground" defense.
Jason Uphaus was part of a line of protesters who blocked access the bridge June 7 to raise awareness of the Black Lives Matter movement. Cellphone videos show that a motorist, later identified as Nathan Matusz, drove up to the protesters and forced his way through the picket line, carrying Uphaus off on the hood of the vehicle.
Uphaus damaged a side mirror of the SUV and was ultimately charged with criminal mischief and disorderly conduct. Matusz was not charged in the incident.
On Monday, Uphaus' attorney Christopher Klotz filed a motion arguing Matusz used the SUV in a way that physically threatened the life and safety of the protesters, and that Florida’s "stand your ground" law gave Uphaus the right to defend himself and his fellow protesters by laying on the hood of the car instead of being run over.
"Mr. Matusz ran into Mr. Uphaus and forced him backwards with his car and continued to run into him until Mr. Uphaus had to make a decision of either going under or on top of the car," Klotz said in a phone interview Monday. "He did not feel that there was a safe way to get away from the car, and he ended up on the hood."
Matusz could not immediately be reached for comment Monday.
Police stated in an offense report that Matusz was driving at a "slow enough speed where Uphaus could have gotten off the vehicle." Uphaus has estimated the vehicle reached 50 miles per hour at one point and said he grabbed at the driver's side mirror in an effort to force the driver to stop.
"Stand your ground," in essence, says a person who faces an imminent threat of death or bodily injury can meet force with force and has no duty to retreat.
"In Florida, under certain circumstances, a vehicle can be considered to be a deadly weapon, and we believe that the actions of Mr. Uphaus were in defense of himself or others as he was being confronted with deadly force," Klotz said.
Klotz said his office had obtained video that shows Matusz driving toward the crowd, despite instruction from police on scene to turn around. Klotz said the video showed that Uphaus remained stationary while Matusz advanced into him. Klotz claimed the video clearly indicated that Matusz had been the aggressor in the incident, and the attorney said he was disappointed that Uphaus had ultimately been the one arrested.
"I'm concerned, because nationally, this appears to be a growing trend by people who have a strong position against the protests to attempt to ram through crowds of protesters," he said.
Media outlets have reported incidents of motorists driving into crowds of protesters in Seattle, Detroit and other locations.
Generally, protesters and marchers must obtain a permit before lawfully closing or blocking a road. Still, the absence of a permit does not give motorists leeway to harm demonstrators, Klotz said.
"Let's say an elderly person or a child go out into the street and are not supposed to be there — maybe they have walked out against a red light — that does not give the driver of a vehicle the right to run over them or attempt to use their vehicle to ram them and push them out of the way," he said.
In the motion, Klotz also asserts that Matusz has a history of ignoring police instructions and careless driving. The Stevenson Klotz law firm has posted documentation of those incidents and video from the June 7 incident on its website.
Speaking to what comes next procedurally, Klotz said a defendant who invokes
"stand your ground" laws is entitled to a pre-trial hearing. If they can successfully demonstrate that they had a right to use appropriate force, the case will be dismissed.
"Mr. Uphaus made a decision to act in the least forceful way that he could to try to protect himself and the people who were standing around him. ... It seems unjust that he is the one who got charged," he said.
Kevin Robinson can be reached at email@example.com or 850-435-8527.