Trial lawyers like to joke that anyone who represents themselves in court has a fool for a client. But that’s not stopping Henry “Enrique” Tarrio, chairman of the street-brawling Proud Boys.
Tarrio, who does not have a law degree, opted to submit his own legal response to a civil lawsuit against him brought by one of the oldest Black churches in America. The suit accuses Tarrio and other members of the group of committing acts of terror by destroying Black Lives Matter signs in Washington, D.C., in December.
Tarrio now finds himself throwing down against the church’s large, heavy-hitting team of actual lawyers, which includes a former prosecutor for Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, Jeannie Rhee. To make matters worse, his two-page response to the church’s 115-page complaint arrived late—two days after the judge’s April 30 deadline.
“The Defendant is not responsible because Defendant Henry Tarrio did not cause the injury,” Tarrio’s brief states. “The defendant DENIES ALL and thereby demands strict proof thereof.”
Legal experts who spoke with VICE News declared themselves unimpressed by Tarrio’s legal handiwork.
“This is not a legally sufficient answer,” said Harry Sandick, a former federal prosecutor for the Southern District of New York, who now works for Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler LLP in New York. “An answer must go paragraph by paragraph and admit or deny each allegation individually.”
Tarrio’s self-lawyering represents the latest twist in the legal drama between the church and the Proud Boys, which could end up revealing a lot about the inner workings of the pro-Trump gang.
A big, decisive win for the church’s legal team could hand them the power to blow the lid off the Proud Boys’ murky finances, and eventually begin hunting for assets and staking claims on what they find, legal experts have told VICE News.
Such a process would be complicated and involve plenty of further legal wrangling, even if the church emerges victorious from this lawsuit. But if the church wins the right to start following up with an investigation backed up by the court’s subpoena power, there may be a lot to find.
VICE News reported in April that business records link top Proud Boys to a network of LLCs in Florida and elsewhere, crowdfunding operations, and at least one online store selling Proud Boys–branded merch. These companies have hawked protein powder, gun-themed T-shirts, and even hoodies on behalf of former President Trump’s longtime confidant Roger Stone.
Tarrio’s legal filing raises a series of “affirmative legal defenses” against the lawsuit, which was filed Jan. 4.
Tarrio asserts that the sign itself had an estimated value of less than $50, and that the church probably spent more than that on legal fees “without first requesting compensation in writing before engaging in costly vexatious litigation.”
Tarrio also insists he isn’t personally responsible for the destruction of the sign, which he attributes to an unidentified “third party.”
“The defendant is not responsible because defendant Enrique Tarrio did not cause the injury,” the filing states. “There is a third party that is responsible for all or part of the plantiff’s damages other than Defendant Enrique Tarrio.”
And he pins some of the blame on the church itself, suggesting “negligence” contributed to the destruction of the banner, without explaining exactly how.
“The injured party contributed to its own harm, and thus the defendant should not be held liable.”
A video from the night of Dec. 12 shows a group of Proud Boys chanting “Whose streets? Our streets!” and “Fuck antifa!” as they tear down a Black Lives Matter sign from outside the Metropolitan AME Church.
Sandick said the judge would likely give Tarrio another chance to revise his submission, and overlook his late filing, since it was submitted “pro se” — the technical term for when a litigant opts to represent themselves.
“While a late-filed answer is not permitted, judges will usually not hold a brief delay against a litigant, especially when the litigant is pro se,” Sandick said.
Tarrio’s decision to do his own lawyering might not work out well in court, said Rebecca Roiphe, a former prosecutor in New York who now specializes in legal ethics at New York Law School.
“This seems like a fairly serious mistake,” Roiphe said. “It may play well with his supporters in that it conveys a general contempt for the law, lawyers, and the complaint itself, but as a strategic matter, this seems like a misstep because the complaint alleges specific violations of the law that could lead to fairly serious consequences. Without a lawyer, it's hard to see how Tarrio can successfully defend himself against the allegations.”
Tarrio’s legal filing takes a notably more-measured tone than some of his previous remarks about the case, when he breezily dismissed the possibility that the church might be able to squeeze any financial damages out of him or the group.
"The Proud Boys is not a legal entity, so I don't know what money they'd go after,” Tarrio told VICE News in April. “If they try to go after mine, I'd be happy to drag my balls across their face in court.”
(Gavin McInnes was a co-founder of VICE. He left the company in 2008 and has had no involvement since then. He later founded the Proud Boys in 2016.)