Prosecutors have dropped a felony charge of wearing a mask in public that had been filed against a woman at last month’s gun rights rally in downtown Richmond.
Mikaela E. Beschler, 21, was the only person charged in relation to the Jan. 20 rally. Police estimated the crowd at 22,000 people, and many attendees had their faces covered on the frigid morning.
Mackenzie Clements, an attorney for Beschler, said Wednesday that the charge was dismissed “after the commonwealth acknowledged that it would have been difficult to prove that Mikaela had criminal intent to conceal her identity.”
The 1950s-era law — aimed at unmasking the Ku Klux Klan in Virginia — under which Beschler was charged makes it illegal for anyone over the age of 16 to conceal their face in public with the intent to also conceal their identity. The Class 6 felony is punishable by up to five years in prison and a $2,500 fine.
Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Colette McEachin confirmed the dismissal, saying there is a prior Virginia case that allows for an exception to the law for weather conditions.
McEachin said that the police officer who arrested Beschler acted appropriately and that the system worked as it should. After a review of the facts of the case, her office decided “it would not have been fair or warranted” to seek a conviction. McEachin acknowledged Wednesday that hundreds of others at the event “were similarly garbed” and faced no repercussions.
Clements said her client is “grateful that the Richmond Police Department treated her with such dignity and respect throughout the arrest process.”
Beschler’s arrest came about an hour after the gun rally at the state Capitol had concluded. She was arrested in the 800 block of East Broad Street, a short walk from the Capitol grounds where some 6,000 unarmed people gathered inside a fenced-off area. An additional 16,000 people surrounded the area; many of them were heavily armed with pistols and rifles and sheathed in body armor.
Richmond police, in a statement after her arrest, said Beschler had been given two warnings to remove the bandana she had covering her face. She complied, showing the officers her face and saying she was trying to keep her face warm, according to a video she took of the second interaction with police that she posted to a social media account that identified her by name.
“Had this matter moved forward, we intended to challenge her arrest as well as the constitutionality of the ‘felony mask’ law itself,” Clements said in a statement Wednesday. “My position is that nothing was criminal in her behavior that day — wearing a bandanna while peacefully observing and participating in a public gathering.
“I cannot speak as to why no one else was arrested that day for this same offense,” Clements continued. “This particular statute seems to lend itself to discriminatory enforcement, and to avoid such disproportionate harms and outcomes, it should be carefully scrutinized to ensure it does not infringe upon other constitutional rights, such as freedom of speech, freedom to assemble, freedom of association, and due process.”
The ACLU of Virginia had called on prosecutors to drop the charges, and the organization’s executive director, Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, made a similar argument in a later interview.
“We have too many laws in the books that are being enforced differently based on who you are and how you look,” Gastañaga said Jan. 22.
McEachin said she doesn’t feel the statute is unconstitutional nor does she have any issues with how it was enforced at last month’s rally. She met with Richmond and Capitol Police officers ahead of the event to strategize about what criminal behaviors might occur.
“I told them I was willing to sustain a charge if someone was wearing a mask,” she said. “The facts did not sustain the charge against this young woman given the totality of circumstances.”