City Attorney Carmen Trutanich wants to teach Occupy L.A. a lesson about the First Amendment. But as the first wave of failure-to-disperse cases goes to court, the Occupiers are teaching him about the Sixth Amendment.
That's the one that guarantees a speedy trial, as well as the right to confront witnesses. The Occupiers are refusing to waive those rights, which has led to a slew of dismissals.
So far, 11 cases have been thrown out — mostly due to insufficient evidence. Occupy court-watchers say that prosecutors are having a hard time tracking down their witnesses and getting their paperwork together in time to proceed with jury trials.
“It seems like everything is going in favor of the Occupiers,” said
Patti Beers, an Occupy legal observer.
In the wake of the Nov. 30 raid on the Occupy L.A. camp, Trutanich filed 50 misdemeanor cases. Most of those demonstrators wanted to be arrested, so the cases should be relatively easy to prove.
But so far, according to the City Attorney's Office, Trutanich's prosecutors have obtained three convictions, all via plea deals. Another two cases were deferred for six months. At the same time, seven cases were dismissed for lack of evidence, and another four were dropped in exchange for pleas to probation violations. The rest are pending.
Cheryl Jones, division chief with the L.A. County Public Defender's
Office, declined to discuss the office's strategy while Occupy cases are
But Nicol Piras, an Occupy arrestee, said that Occupiers had made a “political decision” to clog up the system by refusing to agree to delays. The City Attorney's Office seems to have been hampered by the holidays, when many people are on vacation, she said.
“They're really short-staffed right now,” she said. “Getting the specific officer who arrested the defendant has been an issue for the prosecution.”
There have also been paperwork problems. On Tuesday, a judge dismissed the case against activist Martha Lewis. According to Patti Beers, who attended the trial, Lewis' public defender argued that the arresting officer should not be allowed to testify because his name had not been turned over to the defense beforehand. The deputy city attorney objected, but the judge sided with the defense and threw out the case.
Lawrence Ziese, 40, said the City Attorney's Office dropped the case against him for lack of evidence last week. Ziese, a legal observer for Occupy, said he was picked up at First Street and Broadway — a block away from City Hall — while trying to leave the demonstration. Ziese was held for 10 days on an outstanding warrant.
“I don't know why I was arrested,” Ziese said. “The LAPD made a huge mistake.”
Before the case was dropped, Ziese got a chance to see the evidence against him, which consisted of mostly photographs of signs that indicate the hours at City Hall Park.
Frank Mateljan, the City Attorney's spokesman, argued that the rate of dismissals is not unusual.
“The pattern appears to be consistent with what we typically see with mass arrests of this type,” he said in an email.
Some Occupy activists, however, believe Trutanich rushed to file charges in order to make a political statement.
“The prosecution is concerned politically with bringing these cases,” said Leone Hankey, an Occupy legal observer. “They're not supposed to bring a case to a jury trial if they don't
believe they have the evidence.”
Judie Woodworth, 22, was also about a block away from City Hall when she was arrested on Nov. 30. Woodworth, who is homeless, said she got conflicting instructions from different officers about whether she could stay on the sidewalk. The judge dismissed her misdemeanor case last week in the middle of jury selection.
“We chose as a group to do the speedy trial,” Woodworth said. “I feel they did file the charges so they could get more money and make it look like they were doing their job.”