October 22, 1999 -- Erie Times

No verdict in Rainbow permit case

Staff writer

The nonjury trial against three Rainbow Family members ended Thursday with handshakes and smiles, but with no verdict.

Senior U.S. District Judge Maurice B. Cohill Jr. said he will rule sometime after he receives the lawyers' final briefs, which are due by Nov. 15.

Cohill heard testimony on Wednesday and Thursday at the federal courthouse in Erie. He will use the briefs to help him determine two things -- the constitutionality of the U.S. Forest Service regulation that the Rainbows are accused of violating, and the Rainbows' guilt or innocence.

During the trial, members of the forest service testified about how they cited the three for failure to get permits for the Rainbow Family's annual gathering in the Allegheny National Forest this summer. None of the Rainbows testified.

Afterward, the defendants and some of their supporters shook hands and smiled with members of the forest service and the prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney John Trucilla.

"The problem is with the law," said defendant Garrick Beck, of Santa Fe, N.M. "My ill will isn't toward the people who ticketed us. It is toward the regulation writers in Washington who have been targeting our group for years."

Trucilla said the law is meant to treat any noncommercial group fairly, Rainbows included.

"It is narrowly tailored to meet specific requirements," he said. "It is not overly broad."

The three-year-old regulation requires noncommercial groups of 75 people or more to take out free permits for events at the national forests. A violation is a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in prison and a $5,000 fine. In 1997, the last time the Rainbows had such a case in federal court in Erie, a magistrate judge found the regulation constitutional and fined the two defendants $50 each.

The current case involves different Rainbows. Trucilla has said he would have no problem with a conviction resulting in no more than a $100 fine each.

Whatever the verdict, the case could set precedent for Pennsylvania and two other eastern states. Either side may appeal Cohill's decision to the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Philadelphia, which has never ruled on the constitutionality of the permit requirement. The 3rd Circuit covers Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware and the Virgin Islands.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Richmond, Va., has ruled the permit constitutional. And the court for the 9th Circuit, based in San Francisco, has an appeal pending. The circuit courts are independent from each other, and their rulings are not binding across the circuits. The U.S. Supreme Court would have the final word if an appeal reached the high court.
Beck stood trial along with Stephen Sedlacko, also known as Stephen Principle, of Eugene, Ore.; and Joan Kalb, also known as Joan Freedom, of New York City. They are represented by Erie attorney John Garhart, for the American Civil Liberties Union and Beck; Bruce Antkowiak of Greensburg, the court-appointed lawyer for Sedlacko; and Erie attorney Robert Sambroak, who is representing Kalb for free.

The three defendants were among the 20,000 members of the Rainbow Family who attended the annual gathering from June 28 to July 10 at the 540,000-acre Allegheny National Forest in an area near Ridgway, Elk County. The family, made up largely of nonconformists who say they have no leaders, gathered to pray for peace.

The forest service cited the three defendants for the permit violation because officers said each of the three appeared to have leadership roles in the Rainbow Family. Trucilla, however, said the regulation allows the forest service to cite any "spectator or participant'' of a noncommercial group of more than 75 people which did not obtain a permit.

"These people came forward" as leaders, Trucilla said. "All 20,000 could have been cited. But it was not a pragmatic thing to do."

The leadership issue still remains an important part of the case for the Rainbows. Their lawyers referred to another part of the regulation, which requires the permit application to be filled out by a designated representative of the group. The Rainbows claim no one in their assembly could meet such a standard because the Rainbows have no leaders -- they rule by consensus, with no one person in charge.

Garhart, Beck's attorney, summarized the argument by asking a forest service official in court, "How do you become designated if someone doesn't authorize the person to do it?"

Trucilla objected, and Cohill agreed that the question was irrelevant. The forest service official, John Schultz, a ranger in the Allegheny National Forest, did not have to answer.

The leadership issue aside, the Rainbows claim the permit regulation is unconstitutional because it infringes on their First Amendment rights to free assembly and free expression. They said the regulation erodes the rights of all citizens, not only the Rainbows.

Trucilla argued that the law treats everyone the same and is based on common sense. He said the forest service requires groups to take out permits so service officials can plan for large gatherings and protect the national forests from trash and other damage.

"We're not saying they can't use ... the Allegheny National Forest. We're not trying to restrict the park," Trucilla said. "This is not a Rainbow-specific regulation."