The charges brought against the protesters have been given a so-called “gang enhancement”, a legal device introduced in the 1990s allowing authorities to add years of extra jail time to underlying sentences where people have committed a crime together.
Civil liberties watchdogs and the city’s mayor have called the potential sentences excessive. However, the district attorney himself has said the protesters are unlikely to face jail time.
The protest occurred in July after district attorney Sam Gill ruled that two police officers had been justified in shooting dead 22-year-old Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal, whom they chased down an alleyway after responding to a report of an armed man at a Salt Lake City motel.
Mr Palacios-Carbajal, who was found to have been carrying a loaded handgun, was shot 13-15 times, dying of his injuries.
When Mr Gill announced his finding that the killing was lawful, hundreds of people arrived at a protest outside his office building. Some of them began painting the street and building red, while others broke windows and scuffles broke out with police.
According to the Salt Lake City police, four people were arrested: 39-year-old Ryan Moore, 32-year-old Mercedes McKinley, 21-year-old Emmanuel Hill and 18-year-old Sofia Alcala.
In a Twitter thread earlier this week, Ms McNeil wrote: “Proud to confirm that I have been charged with felony shifting my weight in front of a cop.
“What we have all failed to consider is that (allegedly) bracing yourself to be hit by a riot shield is actually much more violent than hitting someone with a riot shield. Perhaps the DA is right: anyone who braces themselves for a physical attack may deserve life in prison …
“Incredible that Sam Gill not only excused but commended the behavior of the officers who shot a 22 year old in the back, but is willing to throw a group of teenagers and 20-somethings in prison for life for allegedly *checks notes* painting a building.”
The charges levelled and the potential sentence they carry have already attracted plenty of criticism, including from local authorities.
In a statement, Salt Lake City mayor Erin Mendenhall said the prospect of such harsh sentences was clearly alarming. “If a crime is committed, there should be a consequence,” she said, “but that consequence needs to be proportionate to the crime itself.
“And in this case, where we’re seeing the potential for an individual to spend a lifetime in prison for buying paint, that is too extreme.
“I don’t agree with the extent and the potential of these charges, and I hope that the criminal justice system won’t take it that far.”
However, Mr Gill told the Associated Press that “I don’t think anyone is going to be going to prison on this,” pointing out that it is common for cases to end with pleas to lesser counts that carry non-custodial penalties.