Protestors and Mount Desert Island residents Amy Trafton, at far right, Courtney Imken, at far left, and a woman who asked only to be identified as Carolyn M. chat Monday, Aug. 1, 2022, while positioned across the street from Leonard Leo's house in Northeast Harbor. Credit: Bill Trotter / BDN

A misdemeanor charge filed last year against a man who cursed at Leonard Leo, a conservative judicial activist who summers on Mount Desert Island, has been dismissed.

The charge of disorderly conduct against Eli Durand-McDonnell, 24,was dropped Thursday by Hancock County District Attorney Robert Granger. Durand-McDonnell was participating in a protest outside Leo’s home in Northeast Harbor when he was arrested.

Granger said that the alleged conduct was a borderline offense.

“There is at times a fine line between protected speech and speech that incites an immediate breach of the peace,” Granger said. “As prosecutors, we need to tread very carefully where a prosecution could potentially undermine the constitutional right of free expression.”

He also said that even if Durand-McDonnell was found guilty of the charge, the resulting punishment likely would be minimal. That likelihood made it a low-priority for his office at a time when a significant backlog of pending criminal cases means it likely would not otherwise be resolved for a “substantial” period of time, he said.

“I could not imagine a court would impose anything other than a small fine on a conviction.” Granger said. “We have far more serious cases to focus our attention on.”

Durand-McDonnell declined to comment, directing inquiries about his case to his defense attorney, Matthew Morgan.

“Eli did absolutely nothing wrong and a dismissal or acquittal was the only appropriate outcome in this case,” Morgan said.

Durand-McDonnell was accused of cursing at Leo last summer as Leo and his family were walking down Main Street in the central Northeast Harbor village. Later that afternoon, Durand-McDonnell joined protests outside Leo’s summer home about Leo’s influence in appointing conservative judges to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Protests intensified outside Leo’s home last summer after the Supreme Court voted to remove federal protections for abortions. Leo has been instrumental in getting conservative justices who oppose abortion getting appointed to the court.

After getting yelled at by Durand-McDonnell, Leo complained to police. When police then located Durand-McDonnell at the protest, he was arrested on the disorderly conduct charge. The complaint filed against him said that he “did knowingly accost, insult, taunt or challenge Leonard A. Leo” and that he “yelled obscenities and made offensive gestures” at Leo and his family.

Leo later issued a statement accusing Durand-McDonnell of cursing at Leo’s 11-year-old daughter, but Durand-McDonnell said his comments were directed at Leo, not the girl.

Durand-McDonnell was released on bail later that evening from Hancock County Jail. As part of his bail conditions, he was told not to have any contact with Leo, but there was no mention of Leo’s family in his bail conditions.

Morgan later filed a motion to dismiss the charge on the grounds that it violated his client’s right to peacefully protest. He said the allegations against Durand-McDonnell were insufficient and that he never should have been arrested.

“Audio from body camera footage of a conversation between law enforcement and [Leo] plainly reveals that law enforcement arrested Eli for the purpose of imposing bail conditions that would prohibit him from returning to the site of the lawful protest,” Morgan wrote in the motion. “He was literally arrested in the act of protesting. MDI officers violated Eli’s 1st and 4th Amendment rights when they illegally arrested him for the purpose of interfering with his right to protest the political actions of Leonard Leo.”

Scrutiny and criticism of Leo has been a national issue.

Leo came under fire recently again for directing nearly $100,000 in secret payments to Ginni Thomas, wife of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, for supposed consulting work, according to The Washington Post.

Before that, Leo made headlines this month when Politico reported that he leveraged his work with The Federalist Society — a not-for-profit whose tax status prohibits it from political advocacy — to obtain a $1.6B gift for his “dark money network” that has helped to get conservative, anti-abortion justices appointed to the Supreme Court.

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Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....