During a virtual appearance in the San Luis Obispo County Superior Court on March 3, the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office recommended a misdemeanor diversion for five of the seven local Black Lives Matter protesters charged with endangering and violating the personal liberty of nonparticipants in a protest last July.
Citing the community’s division over the case, Deputy District Attorney Delaney Henretty made the request, asking the court to consider the defendants—Marcus Montgomery, Amman Asfaw, Joshua Powell, Sam Grocott, and Jerad Hill—lack of criminal history and the “belief that their actions were done to stop racial discrimination, a worthy goal.”
“I just wanted to pause for a second amidst the storm and litigation and allegations in this case, I want to say a few things. First, these divisions and allegations are much like the divisions of late that have gripped our country. We are a nation of laws, not men,” Henretty said. “The law should apply to all people equally. It’s not our place to judge the contents of the defendants’ speech. First Amendment is precious to all of us as Americans, and it should be zealously protected. You have 200 years of jurisprudence that tells us simply that our right of free speech ends when we begin trampling on the rights of others.”
A misdemeanor diversion can be offered to a defendant over the objection of a prosecuting attorney and a judge can order the defendant to comply with the terms, conditions, and programs the judge deems appropriate based on the defendant’s charges. At the end of a diversion period, which can’t be longer than a year, if the defendant complies with all requirements the judge is required to dismiss the case against the defendant.
Curtis Briggs, co-counsel for protest leader Tianna Arata, encouraged all of the defendants to reject the offer. Henretty left Arata, who faces 13 misdemeanors, and Robert Lastra, charged with a felony for vandalizing property, out of the offer.
None of the five defendants responded to Henretty’s diversion proposal.
All the defendants asked for a court hearing to hold the District Attorney’s Office in contempt for failing to produce documents and records relating to the prosecution’s decision in charging the protesters. SLO County Superior Court Judge Michael Duffy scheduled a hearing for April 9.
The day before the court appearance, Briggs’ spoke with the Free Tianna Coalition’s Melissa Elizalde on Instagram Live to explain what’s happening with the case.
Briggs said the case is currently in limbo as the defendants wait for the SLO County District Attorney’s Office or the California Attorney General to decide who will be prosecuting the case. Despite the waiting game, Briggs said the December 2020 court order dismissing the District Attorney’s Office from the case due to bias was already a big win.
Briggs repeated the allegation that other attorneys in the case have made against SLO County District Attorney Dan Dow, saying Dow was using the case to “advance a white supremacy agenda.”
“He’s got it veiled under a conservative agenda, but it’s not the conservative agenda we’re worried about, it’s the white supremacy agenda that Dow is trying to promote. And we have the opportunity to get all of these documents approved, which will give us an opportunity to have this case dismissed on that basis,” he said. “It’s exciting from a lawyer standpoint, from a civil rights standpoint. Because we’re essentially about to expose all this racism in SLO.” Δ