South Carolina lawyer nabbed in Jan. 6 Capitol riot loses bid to get law license back

A federal judge has rejected a bid by convicted S.C. lawyer and Trump supporter David Johnston of Charleston to quickly get his law license back.

In legal filings in the District of Columbia federal court, former lawyer Johnston, whose law license was suspended after his 2022 arrest, argued he would have a better chance of getting it reinstated if a judge granted an early termination to his ongoing 36-month probation.

Johnston made about $200,000 a year before his law firm, George Sink P.A., fired him for participating in the Capitol riot, according to court records.

But U.S. Judge Beryl Howell refused to lift Johnston’s probation.

Johnston still has about 17 months to go in his 36-month probation, Howell wrote in an April 30 order denying Johnston’s request.

And Johnston’s criminal conduct was very serious, the judge wrote.

Johnston joined “the riot at the Capitol building knowing that the police had been overrun and overwhelmed by the rioters” and then entered the Capitol Building through a broken window, despite acknowledging that, by entering, he would be inviting further violence, Howell wrote.

Johnston also “brazenly and repeatedly” disregarded police directions and remained in the Capitol despite seeing “property damage and physical altercations between rioters and the police on at least four separate occasions,” she wrote.

Johnston, a supporter of former President Donald Trump, was arrested by the FBI in Charleston in May 2022 for his Capitol breach offenses. The S.C. Supreme Court suspended his law license shortly afterward. Lawyers cannot engage in conduct that brings disgrace upon the law.

When Johnston was arrested, he released a statement through his then-lawyer that said, “I intend to plead not guilty to these charges and look forward to my day in court.”

However, evidence against him was overwhelming. It included cell phone geolocation data and video and audio from inside and outside the Capitol. He is the only South Carolina lawyer arrested so far in the roundup of Jan. 6 defendants.

In his motion to get his probation lifted, Johnston wrote, “I would like to get my law license back.”

Johnston continued, “Here in South Carolina, lawyers who practice in the area of licensure have told me they think the Bar will not lift the suspension of my law license while I remain on probation.”

He also apologized and wrote, “The disrespect I showed that day deeply troubles me. That is what I regret. The Capitol is the single most significant symbol of our history, our government, our legal traditions. … All of my childhood heroes, Washington, Adams, Jefferson…. Had connections to that building,” Johnston wrote.

Johnston had pleaded guilty in December 2022 to the misdemeanor offense of parading, picketing or demonstrating in a Capitol building. Other charges against him were dropped. He was sentenced to 21 days incarceration, 90 days home confinement and 36 months probation. He was also fined $2,500.

During the riot, Johnston wore Trump regalia that included a blue winter cap with white and red trim embroidered with a circular circular “45” logo and the word “TRUMP.” Surveillance video and audio captured him walking around, posing for pictures, talking with other rioters and calling people on his cell phone, at one point exclaiming, “We have broken past the barriers, we have made it to the Capitol doors, this is the Capitol,” according to evidence in his case.

Ashley Akers, the federal prosecutor in his case, said although Johnston was nonviolent, he nonetheless was very much part of the mob that rampaged outside and inside the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2001.

“The only reason the violent, destructive rioters were able to do the damage they did was because they had strength in numbers, because people like the defendant (Johnston) stood behind them and supported them and were able to sufficiently overwhelm the officers, overtake the officers, and break into the Capitol Building,” said Akers on Dec. 16, 2022, at Johnston’s sentencing hearing.

Howell agreed. “This defendant was part of a riot; he was a rioter. And he only was able to do what he did because he was in the midst of a whole bunch of angry people who had been directed down to the Capitol, many of them — because they just attended the former president’s rally and he told them to go to the Capitol — and they believed that the 2020 presidential election was stolen… his participation in this whole crowd helped contribute to everything that happened that day, ” she said at Johnston’s sentencing hearing.

Rioters shut down Congress for more than five hours, forcing lawmakers and staff to flee and halting the certification of presidential electoral votes, a necessary step in the peaceful transition of power.

Last month, in a brief to Howell, Akers argued that Johnston’s profession as a lawyer argues against his getting his law license back quickly.

“Unlike other professionals, attorneys are rigorously taught about the importance of adhering to the rule of law. In their professional work and continuing education, they are frequently reminded that the rule of law is an essential component of a free and orderly society. That the defendant was a practicing attorney on Jan. 6, and still chose to engage in the actions that he did, weighs strongly against his motion for early termination, not in favor,” Akers wrote.

In his filing to lift his probation, Johnston said he currently works in the field of low income affordable housing. He has no criminal record, had stable employment in his law firm for the past 10 years, is married with four children and is a deacon in his church, he wrote.

“I could do much more in (that field) as a licensed attorney,” he wrote.

And he will never go to another Trump rally, he wrote.

“When Trump held a rally in my hometown of Summerville, SC, a few miles from my house, on Sept. 25, 2023, I did not attend. When he held a rally on Feb. 10 of this year, at nearby Coastal Carolina University, I did not attend,” Johnston wrote.

“No more rallies for me,” he wrote.

Howell told Johnston at his December 2022 sentencing hearing, “You should have known so much better.”

Asked for comment on Wednesday, Johnston said only that he was not surprised by the judge’s response. “This exact response by the Court was one hundred percent anticipated before the motion was even drafted.”

So far, more than 1,424 defendants have been charged in connection with the storming of the Capitol. They come from nearly all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Approximately 820 have pleaded guilty and 162 have been found guilty at trials, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.