Lightning in a Bottle organizers recently announced that the 2014 incarnation of the arts and music festival will be held at a new location in Central California. More restrictive sound rules at last year's location were given as the reason.
But the elephant in the room is all the arrests of attendees last July at Lake Skinner Recreation Area in Temecula, where the festival was held. There were 58 all told, and they occurred under controversial circumstances. Most were the result of a sting carried out by undercover police officers from Riverside County's Special Investigations Bureau – a federally funded task force. Many of those arrested felt they had been coerced into selling drugs, and several told the Weekly that officers had been physically aggressive and had called detainees “hippies” and “brain dead retards.”
But nobody has talked about what came of the arrestees. Were they charged? Did the sting ultimately have a point, besides driving a bunch of tax revenue out of the area?
It breaks down like this: Of the 58 folks arrested, 17 had no charges filed against them.
Another 24 arrestees were charged with various offenses, mostly related to possession of a controlled substance. They pled guilty and received “diversion” sentences; California law permits drug offenders with no prior record to take a drug rehabilitation class. Once the class is completed and the individual goes 18 months without a criminal arrest or conviction, he or she pays a fee and the case can be dismissed by the court. The charges will usually be stricken from their criminal record.
“This is the dilemma that most defendants have,” says L.A.-based lawyer Carey Caruso, who is defending one of the still-active cases. “Do you take the bird in the hand or do you see how far out your constitutional rights will carry you on this deal?” Meaning, do you plead guilty to a crime you feel you didn't commit and take a diversion sentence, or maintain your innocence but risk heavier repercussions?
Diversion is not available, however, for anyone charged with possession with intent to sell, which was the case for…
…seven other arrested festival-goers, who pled guilty to various drug-related charges and were convicted, four of them related to possession of marijuana. One19-year-old man was convicted of the import/sale and distribution of a controlled substance and was sentenced to three years of formal probation and 45 days in custody, with a credit of 17 days. The remaining 28 days were to be served in a work release program in the Bay Area.
Ten cases are still active, and primarily concern felony charges relating to distribution and sale of controlled substances. (The Riverside District Attorney's office could not speculate when these cases might be finished.)
It's not clear how they will play out, but it seems that the conviction rate is pretty small here, beyond nabbing a teenage drug dealer. Many felt the police presence at the festival was overly aggressive, and we're inclined to agree. It seems that, in the end, the legacy of this sting will be of a giant waste of time and tax dollars, effectively disrupting what is, by all accounts, an extremely safe and mellow festival.
We're not the only ones who found the proceedings to be calm. Even some of the officers monitoring the grounds said they enjoyed the festival.
In any case, adios Riverside County!
“It was, in terms of revenue, it was a really good event,” says Scott Bangle, Parks Director for Riverside County, “and certainly we feel a loss, but that happens sometimes. Events come and go.”
“I wish them well,” he continues. “Me and my team had a good relationship with the promoters, and they were wonderful to work with. I was at the event and enjoyed myself. It was a very friendly crowd, and even though it wasn't my genre of music, I found myself getting in the groove a little bit.”
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