Los Angeles on Thursday dropped all criminal charges against nine current and former students who were arrested last year at a Westwood rally in support of the DREAM Act.
The activists faced up to one year in county jail for their role in the May 6 demonstration. The case has been closely watched by civil liberties advocates, who said the prosecution of protesters by Los Angeles City Atty. Carmen Trutanich was a dangerous shift in city policy and a threat to free speech.
Until recently, first-time offenders arrested in protests were typically granted what is known as a city attorney hearing, an informal alternative to a court date during which defendants could negotiate deals. Often, the sorts of misdemeanor charges the Westwood protesters faced, including unlawful assembly and blocking the sidewalk or street, were dismissed as infractions.
But since taking office in 2009, Trutanich has charged dozens of protesters, 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.
The charges against the Westwood protesters were dropped because they had no criminal records, had not been violent and had not resisted arrest, said Bill Carter, chief deputy in the city attorney's office.
He said that despite the dismissal, the fact that the protesters had appeared in criminal court sent a message.
"The key factor is we filed it criminally," he said. "When you engage in activity that is disruptive and impinges against the rights of others, you should face consequences."
Cynthia Anderson-Barker, an attorney for the Westwood protesters, said she thought the dismissals were "a result of all the political pressure" exerted on Trutanich's office.
Protesters at the May rally called for the passage of the DREAM Act, or the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, a bill that would have created a path to citizenship for the undocumented children of some illegal immigrants. Nine current or former students, including one Navy veteran, locked arms in the street in front of the Federal Building in Westwood, snarling rush-hour traffic.
Trutanich has previously said that there is a "right way and a wrong way" to protest. Agency spokesman John Franklin pointed to a protest at Cal State Northridge on Wednesday, in which students first applied for permits, as an example of the right way.