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ACLU demands action in protest cases, bar complaint filed

Phoenix police at protests
Posted at 12:33 PM, Apr 02, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-02 15:35:58-04

As more information continues to reveal the level of dysfunction and misconduct surrounding a series of protest prosecutions, ACLU Arizona has sent a list of demands to the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office and a defense attorney has filed a bar complaint against a lead prosecutor.

The separate moves add to mounting pressure against officials in the mishandled protest cases, which are currently under four outside reviews and facing the likelihood of a class-action lawsuit.

“Civil rights leaders and community activists have been sounding the alarm about misconduct in your office for years,” according to the letter sent by the ACLU Arizona on April 1. “This situation requires clear and urgent action including immediate accountability measures to remedy the harm your office has caused people exercising their right to protest and to assure the public that they are safe from political prosecutions in the future.”

The ACLU Arizona letter repeatedly cites ABC5’s “Politically Charged” investigation. The series of reports has exposed how Phoenix police and MCAO prosecutors worked together to charge a group of protesters as a criminal street gang.

In addition to the gang case, the news investigation revealed several other troubling protest arrests. Many of the charges were based on gross exaggerations and lies presented to grand juries.

Charges against 30 protesters have been dropped following ABC15’s reports. However, the majority were dropped without prejudice, meaning they can be refiled.

The ACLU Arizona letter makes several specific demands:

  • Dismiss all protest-related charges with prejudice
  • Fire all prosecutors involved
  • Disband the First Responder Bureau
  • Increase transparency

The two main prosecutors behind the initial protest prosecutions are April Sponsel and Nick Michaud. Both have been removed from the cases, and Sponsel has been placed on leave.

The prosecutors were both assigned to the First Responder Bureau, a specialized unit created by County Attorney Allister Adel to handle crimes against police officers.

Adel has declined ABC15’s request for interviews to discuss protest cases.

“All the protest-related cases were handled by the First Responder Bureau, a new unit created to cater to the false narrative that police officers are the frequent targets of violence rather than the very people often inflicting violence and harm on communities. The unit serves no purpose but to silence critics of police brutality and it must be disbanded,” the ACLU Arizona letter states.

In addition to the ACLU Arizona letter, a defense attorney separately filed a bar complaint against Sponsel on March 31.

Katie Gipson McLean, a lawyer in Maricopa County Public Defender Office, represented an innocent defendant, who was falsely arrested and charged in a “gang” protest case.

For four months, police and prosecutors ignored clear and obvious evidence that Gipson McLean’s client had no involvement or connection to the group of protesters.

Officers and Sponsel also presented the grand jury false information about her defendant.

Editor’s note: This report is part of an ongoing series of ABC15 investigative reports called “Politically Charged.” The series can be found at Contact ABC15 Investigator Dave Biscobing at