Days after hundreds of protesters gathered for a “Freedom Rally” in downtown San Diego, a woman who police say organized the protest could face a misdemeanor charge for allegedly encouraging others to violate stay-home orders meant to slow the spread of COVID-19.
A police spokesman said the department forwarded the case to the San Diego City Attorney’s Office for review on Tuesday. The move comes after some, including civil rights activists, questioned why police did not cite protesters last weekend for ignoring the orders.
A misdemeanor conviction could result in up to six months of jail time and fines of up to $1,000. As of Monday, the City Attorney’s Office had not received any cases related to violations of the orders, a spokeswoman said. The office declined to answer questions Wednesday about whether the case had been received or charges had been filed.
Saturday’s rally drew more than 200 protesters, many of whom waived U.S. flags and wore Trump 2020 hats as they demanded that the government reopen the state. It happened a day before a second rally in Encinitas, where another 200 or so protesters turned out. Many of them stood within six feet of others and did not wear masks, as health and elected leaders have recommended to fight the spread of the virus.
In a joint statement Monday, the San Diego Police Department and county Sheriff’s Department hinted at the possibility of seeking criminal charges against protesters, particularly organizers.
The Sheriff’s Department on Wednesday declined to answer questions about whether the department had forwarded any cases against protesters who gathered in Encinitas on Sunday.
San Diego police spokesman Lt. Shawn Takeuchi said Saturday’s protest violated the county’s order against gatherings and that the department chose to build a case against the person they found to be the organizer of the rally based on public social media posts. He said the department called the person before the weekend and met with that person the day of the protest to caution that the rally would violate the county’s order.
While the Police Department did not name the alleged organizer, the Center for American Liberty said it is representing a 27-year-old woman who participated in Saturday’s rally and was notified on Wednesday about a potential criminal case against her.
“The charged protester had shared information about the protest on social media, which may have led to the authorities deciding to single her out for punishment,” the San Francisco-based legal center said in a statement.
Noting the First Amendment guarantees the right to peacefully protest, CEO Harmeet Dhillon said the legal center’s client participated in a peaceful rally and stood six feet from others.
“It is outrageous that our client is being charged with a crime for participating in (a) constitutionally protected activity,” Dhillon said in a statement. “The right to assemble and to petition the government does not exist if there are topics that are off (limits).”
A woman who identified herself on Facebook as the legal center’s client shared on Sunday a picture of the San Diego Union-Tribune’s front page and wrote: “MY PROTEST MADE THE FRONT PAGE !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
She was not immediately available for comment.
First Amendment Coalition Executive Director David Snyder said previously that protests amid the stay-home orders are uncharted territory.
“If somebody were cited and prosecuted at one of these protests, I think they’d have an argument, and maybe a pretty good argument, that their First Amendment rights were infringed,” he said.
Yet, he said it was hard to predict how courts would rule.
San Diego police and sheriff’s officials have said they are trying to maintain a “delicate balance” between respecting people’s First Amendment right to protest and enforcing laws that aim to protect the public amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We as a department recognize a person’s First Amendment right but we want the community to balance that against the public health concerns,” Takeuchi said Wednesday.
He said the department considered the peacefulness of Saturday’s protest against the possibility that enforcement could have led to greater unrest.
“We certainly wouldn’t want that,” he said, “and that is why we chose not to take enforcement action.”
He said submitting a case for possible prosecution “is the better enforcement action.”
The department has no plans to forward cases against any other protesters to the city attorney for prosecution.
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