A 60-year-old Operation Rescue activist was sentenced Friday to four months in jail for participating in a blockade last October in the Northern California town of Sunnyvale. The relatively harsh penalty was imposed partly because the woman had been arrested before at other abortion clinics.
For the most part, however, anti-abortion protester are not being treated as harshly. They are being cited and released and are often getting the charges against them reduced or dismissed once they get to court.
On Thursday morning, for example, police arrested 373 Operation Rescue activists at an abortion clinic in Cypress after authorities had asked them to leave.
But by 7 that evening, all had been released on their own recognizance, leaving them free to join other demonstrations Friday.
Why are people arrested one day able to go out and commit the same offense the next day?
The reasons, law enforcement officials say, have to do with a lack of coordination, resources and legal options, as well as the need to be even-handed in dealing with offenders.
“The courts have to be very careful that people are not singled out for who they are,” said Santa Clara County Deputy Dist. Atty. Rebecca Hayworth.
Although authorities have the power to require bail if there is a likelihood of a repeat offense, it rarely happens. Typically, people arrested for relatively minor crimes, such as trespassing, are freed without having to post bail as long as they provide proper identification.
Police say they have no way of knowing at the time of arrest which demonstrators have been arrested before in other counties.
“The logistics to run arrest warrants is overwhelming,” Cypress police spokesman Lt. John T. Schaefer said.
Whether prosecutors are informed of past arrests depends on the jurisdiction.
In Sunnyvale, where 480 arrests were made from October to February, police have closely monitored Operation Rescue cases in other Bay Area communities, Hayworth said. Most of the Sunnyvale protesters came from other towns in Northern California.
But as prosecutors in Orange County prepare to process the Cypress cases, they say they are unlikely to do the time-consuming job of tracking down arrest records, said Jan Nolan, supervising district attorney for the West Orange County Municipal Court.
In Los Angeles, where authorities are preparing for the possibility of arrests today, Deputy City Atty. Alice Hand said she has a list of demonstrators arrested in Sunnyvale but from nowhere else.
Los Angeles Police Cmdr. Matthew Hunt, head of the Support Services Bureau that oversees jails, said that if there are arrests, one possibility will be to take the protesters to court immediately, where a judge could issue an order prohibiting them from returning to the demonstration site.
“But that would be very difficult with large numbers” of people arrested, Hunt said. “Logistics somewhat prevents it.”
Officials coping with already vastly overcrowded jails are not eager to house more inmates. Orange County authorities, for instance, will automatically release anyone with bail under $10,000.
Another major problem when large numbers are arrested is marshaling the time and resources for jury trials. In most California jurisdictions, prosecutors have sought to speed the process by having misdemeanor charges against Operation Rescue participants reduced to less serious infractions, so that the defendants would not have a right to a jury trial, Hayworth said.
But in Sunnyvale, where the law does not allow for such reductions, prosecutors have been more aggressive. They have successfully appealed to the state Supreme Court to extend the deadline for holding trials and have completed 240 cases so far.
A dozen Operation Rescue activists who refused to supply their names to authorities have been held in a Santa Clara County Jail since Feb. 11. Bail for each was set at $20,000.
On Friday, when a Santa Clara Municipal judge ordered JoAnn Murphy of Lodi to spend four months in jail and pay a $500 fine, it was the stiffest sentence yet in California, Hayworth said.
Hayworth said prosecutors there have not experienced no-shows, a problem that has plagued other cities where massive protests have been held.
Atlanta Police Sgt. Carl S. Pyrdum Jr. said court dockets in Atlanta and other cities show that more than half those arrested fail to appear for court dates. Since most of the charges are misdemeanors, he added, “nobody’s going to spend a lot of time trying to extradite these people from the ends of the Earth.”
But in New York and elsewhere, pro-choice activists have had some success in putting restraints on Operation Rescue through federal injunctions, lawsuits and contempt complaints.
The National Organization for Women’s Legal and Educational Defense Fund won a $50,000 judgment against Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry for contempt when he repeatedly demonstrated at a series of New York clinics, according to the fund’s legal director, Sarah Burns.
In Los Angeles, the American Civil Liberties Union succeeded in getting a federal judge to grant a preliminary injunction prohibiting anyone from blocking entrances to abortion clinics or from demonstrating within 15 feet of them.
Even so, the injunction will not be used to prosecute protesters in Los Angeles, because of difficulties in proving that an arrested demonstrator was aware of it, Hand said.
Staff writers Lonn Johnston and Karen Tumulty contributed to this story.