Los Angeles City Atty. Carmen Trutanich is throwing the book at dozens of people arrested during recent political demonstrations — a major shift in city policy that has him pressing for jail time in types of cases that previous prosecutors had treated as infractions.
Some of the activists arrested, including eight college students and one military veteran who took part in a Westwood rally last year in support of the DREAM Act, face up to one year in county jail.
Trutanich's aggressive stance is the latest episode in the city's decades-long legal struggle over the rights of protesters. The Los Angeles Police Department's treatment of demonstrators at the 2000 Democratic National Convention and at a 2007 May Day rally at MacArthur Park led to lawsuits against the city.
Trutanich said in an interview that recent demonstrations, conducted without permits, had cost the city thousands of dollars for police response and disrupted traffic. Organizers of illegal protests should face consequences, he said.
"My whole deal is predictability," he said. "In order for us to have a civilized society, there has to be a predictable result when you break the law. I want to make sure that they don't do it again."
The new policy, he added, was designed with an eye on what he called "professional" protesters who demonstrate repeatedly — sometimes for pay, he said — and never seem to be punished for their illegal activities.
"There's a right way and a wrong way" to protest, Trutanich said. "When you break the law, it's a not a mainstream 1st Amendment activity. You have the right to protest; you don't have the right to break the law."
Critics, including civil liberties advocates and at least one City Council member, accuse him of overkill and say his policies could imperil legitimate free speech.
"We should be incarcerating those who are truly public threats as opposed to students who are raising their voices out of passion for a cause," said City Councilman Ed Reyes, who has met with Trutanich on behalf of the DREAM Act supporters.
Reyes said the city should give people arrested in certain forms of protest a chance to work out deals with prosecutors to avoid jail time and criminal records.
Until recently, that was city policy — first-time offenders arrested in protests were typically granted what is known as a city attorney hearing, an informal alternative to a court date where defendants could negotiate deals.
In 2009, under Trutanich's predecessor, Rocky Delgadillo, all but one of 12 students arrested at a protest over fee hikes at UCLA were offered plea deals that reduced their charges to an infraction with a $100 fine.
"Our policy was that this is an exercise of 1st Amendment rights, and if this was your first time, you would get a hearing," said Delgadillo, who said his policy was based on the belief that a protester demonstrating for a political cause is different from a typical criminal.
John Raphling, an attorney who is representing a protester charged with three misdemeanors after a May 21 demonstration at City Hall over rent hikes, said Trutanich's approach is aimed at quashing dissent. "It's saying, 'You better not step out of line, you better not speak out,'" he said. "Why is he taking an approach that's a hundred times more harsh than anyone before?"
Others accuse Trutanich of acting from political motives, noting that he has flirted with a run for L.A. County district attorney — a motivation Trutanich denies.
The effect of his new approach can be seen in the prosecutions of those who took part in at least four demonstrations last year — including 10 people arrested at an August rally for laid-off janitors in Century City and 24 arrested at three protests against Arizona's controversial immigration bill, as well as the DREAM Act supporters.
At the May 20 rally for the passage of the DREAM Act, a bill that would have granted amnesty to illegal immigrants enrolled in college or serving in the military, nine people walked into the street in front of the Federal Building in Westwood, locked their hands together and sat down. They included recent graduates and current college students, one an honors student in her last year at UCLA, and a Navy veteran, Jonathan Bribiesca Ramirez.
The protest snarled rush-hour traffic on Wilshire Boulevard for hours. When police ordered the protesters to disperse, they refused. They were arrested and charged with unlawful assembly and blocking the sidewalk or street — misdemeanors that carry a maximum sentence of up to one year in jail.
As he has in the other protest cases, Trutanich has denied city attorney hearings to the DREAM Act protesters. Their trials are set to begin in March.
In at least one other case, however, the city attorney's office has offered to dismiss charges against some members of a group of protesters, according to their attorney, Cynthia Anderson-Barker. That case involved five students at Cal State Northridge who marched against budget cuts as part of an apparently spontaneous protest. The university's provost, Harold Hellenbrand, wrote a letter to Trutanich asking that the charges be dismissed.
Felipe Plascencia, who along with several other attorneys from the Mexican American Bar Assn. is representing the students in the DREAM Act demonstration for free, said he was shocked to learn that Trutanich was pressing ahead with those cases, as well as Trutanich's suggestion that the protesters were "professionals."
"I have not seen any evidence of that whatsoever," Plascencia said. "These were college students trying to prove a point. It's an injustice for [the city attorney's office] to have dragged on for this long."
Protest, he said, is an American value and has long played a prominent role in L.A. city affairs. In 2006, some 500,000 people marched downtown to protest a proposed federal crackdown on illegal immigration. "The whole foundation of this country was rebelling against an unjust system," he said.
Plascencia also heads the Mexican American Bar Assn. PAC, which supported Trutanich with endorsements and fundraising in his campaign for office. He has lobbied Trutanich to reduce or drop the charges against the DREAM Act protesters and says he hopes they will eventually be dismissed.
For now, however, the various protesters facing charges say their lives have been on hold. Garrick Ruiz, 34, is one of them. In May, he and 13 others locked their hands together outside the Metropolitan Detention Center in protest of Arizona's SB 1070, a measure that requires police to investigate the immigration status of anyone they stop and subsequently suspect may be in the country illegally.
"We knew we were doing something against the law and that we would have to go through the court system," Ruiz said. "That (Trutanich) has taken this path and sought this level of prosecution has been a shock."
This is not the first time Ruiz has been arrested for protesting. He was jailed for demonstrating at the Democratic National Convention in 2000 — and later saw his charges reduced to an infraction.
Last month, Ruiz and the group that staged the Arizona-law protest held a noisy demonstration outside Trutanich's City Hall office. They said his efforts will not deter them.
"If he thinks this is going to stop protest, then he doesn't understand why we did what we did," Ruiz said. "I had to do something, regardless of the personal cost."