A federal judge in Tennessee on Friday rejected a federal prosecutor’s attempt to keep a bassist locked up in jail for months over a photo shoot for his anarcho-punk band, telling an assistant U.S. attorney that the federal government can’t keep someone incarcerated before trial simply because that person exercised his First Amendment rights on Facebook.
It was a deeply embarrassing rebuke for Justice Department prosecutors who decided to charge 29-year-old Justin Coffman under a rarely used federal statute amid President Donald Trump’s campaign against the loosely organized anti-fascism protest movement known as “antifa.”
Coffman, a member of the Jackson-based band The Gunpowder Plot, is facing charges under a federal gun law that makes it illegal for drug users to possess weapons. Coffman was a legal gun owner, but a small baggie of marijuana that law enforcement reportedly found in his home would make gun possession illegal. Federal prosecutors have previously used the charge as a way to lock up alleged white supremacists accused of discussing violent racist plots but whose conduct didn’t offer any clear violation of federal law.
Coffman isn’t anything remotely like those suspects. And Jackson isn’t a hotbed of political unrest, just a few wholly peaceful protests. But law enforcement officials, on edge as rioting and unrest broke out cities across the nation after police officers killed George Floyd on May 25 in Minneapolis, raided Coffman’s home because he had posted three images to his band’s Facebook page that showed him posing in front of a Jackson police transport vehicle with what looked like a Molotov cocktail.
Nobody set fire to a police vehicle in Jackson. The antique liquor bottle that Coffman was holding in the photo, he says, was filled with apple cider vinegar and water, and he later used it as a centerpiece when he made dinner for his girlfriend. The professionally shot images weren’t even taken in reaction to...