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Law in Juba case dates back decades, has been used across US

GRAND FORKS -- A federal law, rarely used in North Dakota but with ties back to the Civil Rights movement, plays a role in the plea deal of a man charged with setting fire last year to a Grand Forks restaurant.

Matthew William Gust
Matthew William Gust

GRAND FORKS -- A federal law, rarely used in North Dakota but with ties back to the Civil Rights movement, plays a role in the plea deal of a man charged with setting fire last year to a Grand Forks restaurant.

The law, which requires special permission to be used, wasn't part of 25-year-old Matthew William Gust's original charges. But after negotiations, Gust will plead guilty in May to interference with a federally protected activity.

Designed to prevent denying certain privileges to people based on their race, color, religion or national origin, the law has grown and expanded to protect more groups since it was enacted in the 1960s.

In Gust's case, the law protects employees and customers of Juba Coffee House and Restaurant in Grand Forks based on their national origin. Court documents claim Gust started the Dec. 8 fire at the cafe, 2017 S. Washington St., with a Molotov cocktail fashioned from a 40-ounce beer bottle he filled with gasoline, causing at least $90,000 in damage.

In an agreement with federal prosecutors, Gust plans to plead guilty this month to the interference charge and another charge for malicious use of explosive materials. The deal calls for Gust to receive a 15-year prison term and pay restitution. He would also serve three years of supervised release.

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Attorney interviews and research show the federal interference charge is used infrequently in North Dakota.

Other cases

Before the Juba fire, the federal charge was used in North Dakota about five years ago.

On Jan. 4, 2011, Dominique Jason Flanigan called Temple Beth El, a Jewish synagogue in Fargo, leaving a voicemail that Flanigan wanted to "send a special message to the head of this synagogue." Flanigan also said when he returned to Fargo that the synagogue would be "my number one list to come visit" with "a special package from Gaza."

Flanigan, also known as Kadafi Al Sadar, was charged with transmitting threatening communications and interference with a federally protected activity because the voicemail message intimidated and interfered with synagogue employees "because of their religion," according to the plea deal Flanigan entered.

In March 2014, Flanigan pleaded guilty to the interference charge and was sentenced to 12 months in prison and one year of supervised release.

Outside of North Dakota, the law has been used in a variety of cases.

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On June 14, 2013, Jeremy Heath Higgins threatened an African-American man at the Alabama Rose Steakhouse, a restaurant in Quinton, Ala., because the man was at the restaurant with a caucasian woman. As Higgins was being escorted from the bar, he shouted racial slurs and threatened to burn down the steakhouse. Later that evening, Higgins returned to the restaurant and painted graffiti on the front of the restaurant and its fence.

Higgins pleaded guilty to two counts of interference with a federally protected activity and was sentenced to nine months in prison in March 2015.

How the law works

The roots of Gust's interference charge is from far before the Juba fire, dating back to the Civil Rights Act of 1968. The statute protects a lengthy list of certain activities. These include, but are not limited to serving on a jury, voting, going to a public school or public college. And it ensures a person is able to participate in these activities regardless of race, color, religion or national origin.

But the government has to prove that the case involves one of the protected activities, in addition to proving the motivation, said Brian Levin, professor in the department of criminal justice at California State University in San Bernardino.

"It still exists, and it's still an operative statute, but a new 'car model,' a new and improved, replaced it," Levin said.

That was the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009, which President Barack Obama signed into law Oct. 28 of that year.

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The Shepard Act built on the statute to give it broader reach, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. For example, the Shepard Act also protects people based on their gender, disability, sexual orientation or gender identity.

But Gust was not charged with the Matthew Shepard Act, and instead charged with a subsection closer to the original.

In his case, employees and customers are protected based on their national origin.

The law protects a person "applying for or enjoying employment," in addition to protecting a person "enjoying the goods, services, facilities, privileges advantages or accommodations" of a variety of businesses including: an inn, hotel, motel, restaurant, cafeteria, lunchroom, lunch counter, soda fountain, gas station, motion picture house, theater, concert hall, sports arena and stadium.


Another factor

The law includes a broad range of protected activity and Levin said a key factor is interstate commerce -- a factor noted in Gust's plea agreement.

"At the time of the incident, Juba Cafe was a building used in interstate commerce, and the people who worked there and ate there were participating in activities that affect interstate commerce," it states.

The deal also states that Juba "purchased many of its food supplies from Minnesota" and "customers also traveled from Minnesota to eat at the restaurant."

For prosecutors to bring the charge, the U.S. Attorney General or someone within the office must approve it.

One factor that wasn't part of the charge was graffiti appearing to be a Nazi "SS" painted on the outside of Juba above the words "go home" days before the fire.

Defense attorney Theodore Sandberg, who is representing Gust, said his client did not paint the graffiti, and police confirmed the the graffiti and fire are separate investigations.

"While the racial undertones of this case were often over-emphasized and exaggerated by many people outside of the case, my client and the U.S. Government never gave in to such hyperbole or opinions, and instead stuck to business and reach an agreement on a very straightforward criminal matter," Sandberg said in a press release.

U.S. District Judge Ralph Erickson will consider accepting the plea agreement during a May 19 court hearing in Fargo. Until then, Sandberg said there are still details of the agreement to iron out with prosecutors, including restitution.

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