A Northern Virginia couple on Monday became the first defendants to plead guilty only to misdemeanor charges in the Capitol riots, agreeing to accept a federal criminal conviction, pay $500 in restitution and let a judge decide the possibility of prison time.
The plea deal entered by Joshua Bustle, 35, and Jessica Bustle, 36, could set a model for about 200 first-time offenders charged only with misdemeanors in connection to Jan. 6 such as trespassing or disorderly conduct on restricted grounds in and around the Capitol.
Joshua Bustle, a real estate agent, and Jessica Bustle, a vaccine critic, were charged by complaint on March 4 with four misdemeanor counts. Prosecutors dropped all but one count – unlawful picketing, parading or demonstrating inside a Capitol building – in an agreement offered May 24 and signed last week by the couple.
“Mr. Bustle, Mrs. Bustle, do you want me to accept your guilty plea today?” U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan asked in court in Washington after warning the pair of the consequences and ascertaining that they were neither coerced nor induced to plead.
“Yes, your honor,” each said.
Federal sentencing guidelines set no recommended range for the Class B misdemeanor, which is punishable by zero to six months in prison by law. The couple asked to be sentenced Monday given their lack of criminal records. First-time misdemeanants are almost never sentenced to prison, but Hogan said he wanted court officials to prepare the usual presentencing report and set out sentences imposed in any comparable cases.
Jessica Bustle’s attorney Nabeel Kibria said the couple wants to move on with their lives.
“They’re just a good, salt of the earth couple who, like others – various people told them to be there. . . . They were into social media before, and realize all the pitfalls of that and want to put this in their past,” Kibria said.
Kibria added that, based on previous cases of people with no criminal history convicted of unlawful picketing or demonstrating inside the Capitol, “I would hope that based on case history, no jail time is anticipated.”
Attorney Tim Anderson said Joshua Bustle was among the very small number of attendees “who got caught up in the moment and broke minor laws,” as opposed to a small number of others who intended to disrupt Congress’s proceedings.
Those like Bustle “should not be labeled as ‘extremist’ or ‘domestic terrorists,'” Anderson said. “They are normal good and patriotic Americans that did not wake up on January 6, 2021 expecting to commit any crimes. However, the law is the law, and if you violate it, you must be held accountable.”
Anderson said he hoped federal prosecutors would hold the same standard against those who committed disorder last summer.
Separately Monday, U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth of Washington set a combined plea hearing and sentencing date Friday for Anna Morgan-Lloyd. The Indiana woman faces the same four misdemeanor charges as the Bustles, and her sentencing could mark the first for any defendant in the Capitol breach.
Hogan granted a request by Joshua Bustle to ease his release conditions to allow the Northern Virginia resident to travel to Maryland for his real estate business, and said he expected to be able to sentence the couple before late August, when the pair said they are considering moving to South Carolina.
The Bustles agreed in a signed statement that the government’s evidence proved they entered the Capitol for about 20 minutes on Jan. 6 shortly after it was stormed at 2:13 p.m., forcing the evacuation of Congress and setting off chaos in which authorities said five people died and nearly 140 police officers were assaulted.
Jessica Bustle held a sign saying, “Vaccine injury is the real pandemic” and “Mandatory medical procedures have no place in a free society,” with Joshua filming her and carrying a similar sign.
“Pence is a traitor. We stormed the capital [sic],” Jessica Bustle posted on Facebook according to plea papers.
Separately, plea papers said she also posted: “We need a Revolution! We can accept an honest and fair election but this is NOT fair and patriots don’t want to see their country brought into communism and destroyed over a lie.”
Speaking to the court on Monday, Jessica Bustle said, “I’m admitting guilt to the things that I said, and I’m sorry for saying them,” but added, “There were also other thing that were said in posts that were kind, like ‘Pray for America,’ that weren’t included. Those weren’t the full things that I wrote. But I am admitting guilt.”
Hogan said he appreciated her statement.
The Bustles are among about 480 defendants federally charged in the riot, of whom nearly half face only misdemeanor charges likely to carry no prison time for first offenders. About 200 others are charged with obstructing an official proceeding of Congress and are accused of intending to impede or interfere with Congress’s confirmation of the electoral vote count. The charge carries a maximum 20-year prison term.
Only two other defendants have pleaded guilty so far, and collectively their deals show prosecutors’ terms for those accused of serious offenses, not including assaulting officers.
On April 16, Jon Ryan Schaffer, 53, described in court documents as a founding member of the Oath Keepers, became the first Jan. 6 defendant to plead guilty and agree to cooperate with prosecutors in hopes of reducing a recommended sentence of roughly four years in prison. He admitted to obstructing an official proceeding of Congress, punishable by up to 20 years in prison; and trespassing on restricted grounds while armed with a deadly or dangerous weapon, which carries up to a 10 year prison term.
Tampa crane operator Paul Allard Hodgkins, 38, pleaded guilty June 2 to one felony count of obstructing Congress’s joint session to confirm the 2020 presidential election results. He is not accused of any other wrongdoing or involvement with extremist groups and faces a 15-to-21-month recommended sentence under advisory federal guidelines. His sentencing is set for July 19.
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This article was produced in partnership with journalism students at the American University School of Communication. Students Ana Álvarez, Aaron Schaffer, Tobi Raji, Maya Smith, Sarah Salem and Sarah Welch contributed to the reporting