By Josh Friedman
It had been a contentious case that pitted a conservative prosecutor against a prominent Black Lives Matter activist in a California county with a near-even left-right divide. But a superior court judge has now disqualified the district attorney of San Luis Obispo County from prosecuting a protest leader whom police officers arrested over the summer, ruling the prosecutor had a “clear conflict of interest.”
Judge Matthew Guerrero, a Democrat, ruled last week that District Attorney Dan Dow, a Republican, had a clear conflict of interest, requiring him to recuse himself from the criminal case against 20-year-old protest leader Tianna Arata, as well as six other activists. The ruling hinged on the district attorney’s wife and reelection campaign having sent a fundraising email that appeared to reference the Arata case. The email, which went out to Dow’s supporters just days after his office filed charges against Arata, stated Dow was leading the fight against the “wacky defund the police movement and anarchist groups.”
In a Dec. 11 hearing, Guerrero stated the email contained inflammatory language, and it interfered with the defendants’ right to a fair trial. Guerrero also stated Dow had sought to benefit politically and professionally from prosecuting Arata.
Dow, in turn, argued Guerrero erred, stating there is no evidence of actual conflict of interest. Guerrero, who formerly served on the boards of directors of both the Oceano Community Services District and the South San Luis Obispo County Sanitation District, was well known in local political circles for his work as a public official prior to being appointed to the bench.
Guerrero’s ruling required, not only Dow, but the entire San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office to recuse itself from the Arata case, a decision seen as a clear victory for the defendants. The California Attorney General’s Office is now weighing whether or not to take over prosecuting Arata and the six co-defendants. Unlike the district attorney’s office, which is led by a conservative Republican, the state attorney general’s office is headed by a liberal democrat, Xavier Becerra, who is likely headed for a position in the incoming Biden Administration.
The criminal case against Arata stems from a July 21 demonstration in which she led protesters onto Highway 101 in San Luis Obispo. While on the freeway, an incident occurred in which the back windshield of a vehicle was smashed.
Protesters claim the driver of the vehicle struck a demonstrator with the car. However, the California Highway Patrol and San Luis Obispo Police Department have maintained a protester used a skateboard to smash the car window, causing glass to fall on a 4-year-old child in the backseat.
During the same protest, demonstrators, including Arata, blocked the paths of vehicles on both the highway and city streets. Arata live-streamed some of the demonstration on her Instagram account. The video recording showed her blocking traffic and stomping on the American flag, as well as using profanity to address outdoor diners and then-San Luis Obispo Police Chief Deanna Cantrell.
After the protest ended, San Luis Obispo police officers swooped in on Arata and arrested her along with one other demonstrator, who kicked an officer in the groin while Arata was being taken away, video shows.
The events of July 21 divided San Luis Obispo County residents. Numerous community members spoke out against Arata’s conduct, particularly her decision to block traffic on the highway. Meanwhile, protesters took to the streets in Arata’s defense, arguing she was exercising her First Amendment rights and police targeted her for being an outspoken black female activist.
Following Arata’s arrest, her sympathizers launched a “free Tianna” social media campaign, and national media outlets picked up the story, giving Arata exposure and air time. Arata’s supporters also crowdfunded tens of thousands of dollars for the activist’s legal expenses.
In early September, the district attorney’s office filed 13 misdemeanor charges against Arata — six counts of obstruction of a thoroughfare, five counts of false imprisonment, one count of unlawful assembly and one count of disturbing the peace. Several weeks later, while faced with allegations that law enforcement specifically targeted Arata among a large crowd of demonstrators, prosecutors filed charges against six other protesters who took part in the July 21 demonstration.
Arata’s legal team has tried unsuccessfully to get the case dismissed on First Amendment grounds, as well as to impose a gag order on the California Highway Patrol and San Luis Obispo Police Department. But Judge Guerrero ruled partially in favor of a motion by Arata’s attorneys to compel discovery of sensitive documents. Guerrero ordered prosecutors to turn over their correspondence with law enforcement on the case, as well as other documents related to the district attorney’s office’s decision to file charges.
On Tuesday, Deputy Attorney General William Frank appeared in San Luis Obispo County Superior Court via Zoom and said he had just been assigned to the case and was waiting to receive files from the district attorney’s office. Frank stated the attorney general’s office would consider appealing Guerrero’s recusal order prior to deciding whether or not to prosecute Arata and her co-defendants.
Frank requested that Guerrero give the attorney general’s office 30 days to make a decision on handling the case. The new prosecution and defense teams are now due back in court on Jan. 19, 2021.
Josh Friedman is a freelance reporter out of San Luis Obispo
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