In 2020 following the brutal murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers, Brittany Martin took to the streets of Sumter, South Carolina, in protest. Over the course of five days, she joined millions of people worldwide to protest police violence and demand accountability for the killing of yet another Black man by U.S. law enforcement.
After five days of protesting without incident, Brittany Martin was arrested, prosecuted, and later convicted for the common law crime of Breach of Peace of a High and Aggravated Nature (BOPHAN). Following her conviction for BOPHAN, the trial court sparked national outrage by sentencing Ms. Martin, who was pregnant at the time, to four years of prison.
The ACLU of South Carolina is representing Ms. Martin as she asks the court to vacate her conviction and sentence. Ms. Martin filed her Notice of Appeal on October 14, 2022. We became involved in the case and filed an Initial Brief on April 19, 2023.
Why this case?
Brittany Martin’s 4-year sentence for a non-violent offense is an outrage and a clear violation of her rights under the U.S. Constitution — including her right to free speech.
In South Carolina’s Third Circuit, courts usually sentence people found guilty of BOPHAN to time served, a short sentence combined with a fine, or a suspended sentence.
At the extreme end, a defendant in 2015 punched a man at a USC-Alabama football game and knocked him unconscious, leading to the victim’s death when the truck he had been sitting in ran him over.
The defendant in that case (State v. Simms) was convicted of BOPHAN and received a three-year prison sentence — a shorter sentence than Ms. Martin is expected to serve for speech during a political protest.
Ms. Martin’s conviction punished conduct protected by the First Amendment, imposed criminal liability for an unconstitutionally vague crime, violated Ms. Martin’s Sixth Amendment right to a unanimous jury verdict, and handed down a cruel and unusual sentence in violation of the Eighth Amendment.
Our appeal is active in the South Carolina Court of Appeals. We filed an Initial Brief on April 19, 2023, and the State filed its brief on August 9, 2023. We replied to the State’s brief on August 28, 2023.