Organizer of California stay-at-home protest could face criminal charges

Alma Villanueva, left, and Gigi Wilcox participate in a protest caravan in downtown Los Angeles on Wednesday to call on state and local officials to reopen the economy.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

With protesters taking to the streets urging the loosening of California’s stay-at-home orders, law enforcement agencies have made at least two arrests and may press charges in one case.

In San Diego, a woman who police say organized a weekend protest could face a misdemeanor charge for allegedly encouraging others to violate stay-at-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.

The California Highway Patrol, meanwhile, announced it would no longer grant protest permits on state grounds unless they are approved by public health officials. The decision came after a rally to reopen California occurred outside the state capitol on Monday. The CHP announcement was first reported by the Sacramento Bee.
“Permits are issued to provide safe environments for demonstrators to express their views. In this case, the permit for the convoy was issued with the understanding that the protest would be conducted in a manner consistent with the state’s public health guidance,” CHP said in a statement to the newspaper.

Over the last few days, there have been protests in San Diego, Newport Beach, Sacramento, Huntington Beach and San Clemente.


An Orange County man has been arrested on suspicion of threatening a KTTV Channel 11 cameraman with a knife hours after the Huntington Beach protest last week.

Lodging protests or threatening to sue hotel owners, some California cities and residents fight plans to house homeless people during the pandemic.

April 23, 2020

Christien Petersen, 36, of Costa Mesa was taken into custody at 7:49 p.m. April 17 for allegedly exhibiting a “deadly weapon other than [a] firearm” and for allegedly kidnapping, the Huntington Beach Police Department’s log stated.

Petersen, who is believed to be a lawyer, is being held on $100,000 bond and is expected to be in court Tuesday.

Police said Petersen was allegedly intoxicated and upset when he was filmed by a Fox cameraman for a report in the aftermath of that day’s Live Free or Die protest, which called for an end to COVID-19 stay-at-home orders.

On Wednesday, a group of protesters carried out a caravan protest in downtown Los Angeles.

Demonstrators have said it’s time to reopen the economy and ease the rules. But many medical experts and officials in California have said there could be grave repercussions to reopening businesses too early.

A new Associated Press poll found an overwhelming majority of Americans support the stay-at-home orders, seeing them as helpful in combating the coronavirus outbreak.

Other polls show similar support. For example, a poll of 1,990 voters conducted by Politico/Morning Consult showed that 81% supported continuing social distancing for as long as needed. Only 10% supported ending social distancing to stimulate the economy.

Meanwhile, a poll of 2,000 Los Angeles residents released last week by Loyola Marymount University found that 95% of respondents were in support of officials’ decision to implement a stay-at-home-order.

California’s relatively quick action to close businesses and order residents to stay home has tamped down the coronavirus outbreak and left many hospitals largely empty, waiting for a surge that has yet to come.


The initial success of the unprecedented shutdown of schools, businesses and other institutions has pleased experts and public health officials, prompting calls to keep the restrictions in place at least into May to help cement the progress.

Newsom announced Thursday that he signed an executive order to suspend the 2016 plastic bag ban for 60 days after hearing concerns from the California Grocers Assn. about shoppers bringing reusable bags from home.

April 23, 2020

Social distancing will be a critical factor. Lifting restrictions too early would likely lead to dangerous new jumps in cases.

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.

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 that the 1st Amendment guarantees the right to peacefully protest, Harmeet Dhillon, CEO of the legal center, said its 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).”

Campa is a Times staff writer. Hernandez writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.