A San Luis Obispo County Superior Court judge on Friday approved a defense motion to disqualify the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney's Office from further prosecuting the case against community activist Tianna Arata.
Arata, who is charged with 13 misdemeanors in connection with a July 21 Black Lives Matter protest in San Luis Obispo, appeared in court via livestream Friday morning.
In court Thursday, her attorneys argued that District Attorney Dan Dow had made several statements on social media and at public events that show implicit bias against the Black Lives Matter movement.
In his ruling, Judge Matthew Guerrero said, "The men and women charged here are entitled to a prosecution not clouded by political or personal advantage to the prosecutor. This is especially pointed in a case where the defendants are protesting injustice and systemic bias. The court's finding of an apparent and actual conflict of interest make it unlikely that the defendants would receive fair treatment during all portions of the criminal proceedings."
“That’s one of the most significant rulings in an American courtroom in the history of this country in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement.”— Megan Healy (@MeganHealyTV) December 11, 2020
-Curtis Briggs, attorney for Tianna Arata on Judge Matthew Guerrero’s ruling to disqualify @SLOCounty_DA from prosecuting case pic.twitter.com/9OXOY3dwle
Judge Guerrero pointed specifically to a Sept. 4 campaign fundraising email sent by Dow and his wife.
"The Sept. 4, 2020 email establishes a clear conflict of interest," Judge Guerrero said. "First, by delivering this fundraising email to potentially tens of thousands of people immediately after the filing of charges, Mr. Dow sought political and professional benefit and campaign contributions in conjunction with the prosecution of the above-entitled cases."
In part, the email reads, "Dan needs to know more than ever that you support him and he really needs your financial support so he can keep leading the fight in SLO County against the wacky defund the police movement and anarchist groups that are trying to undermine the rule of law and public safety in our community. We had planned his kickoff election campaign fundraiser to be this month, but due to COVID and all the crazy protest activity, we were not able to pull it off."
Judge Guerrero called the use of the terms anarchist, crazy, and wacky "inflammatory" and said, "These are extrajudicial statements made to potential jurors in an attempt to sway them and to get them to make financial contributions."
The case will now be sent to the California State Attorney General's Office.
In response to the judge's ruling, Dow released the following statement:
First, let me be clear I have deep respect for the judicial process and the judges who are called to make difficult decisions.
With that in mind, I respectfully and strongly disagree with Judge Guerrero‘s findings and decision to recuse the District Attorney from prosecuting criminal activity that occurred during this summer's protests. The law is clear that in order for a district attorney to be recused there must be an actual conflict of interest and the conflict must be so grave as to render it unlikely that the defendant will receive fair treatment during all portions of the criminal proceedings.
There is absolutely no conflict in this case. To the contrary. While I have been personally attacked on many occasions since the arrests in these cases, I have continued to conduct my duty in a manner that is above reproach without bending to popular opinion and public pressure. I am proud of the professionalism that our office has maintained under months of immense public pressure. We have thoroughly, fairly, and objectively reviewed volumes of evidence, conducted additional independent investigation, and made every decision based on the facts and the applicable law. We have never wavered from our steadfast commitment to ensure that every defendant receives fair treatment while we perform our important Constitutional duty.
To recuse an elected district attorney who has been chosen by the voters of San Luis Obispo County to enforce the law in our community without any evidence of an actual conflict undermines the role and independent nature of an elected prosecutor and sets a dangerous precedent.
During the protest on July 21, demonstrators blocked Highway 101. Police claimed some protesters committed acts of vandalism.
Arata was arrested that night but wasn't officially charged by the DA's office until early September. The charges against her include obstruction of a thoroughfare, false imprisonment, unlawful assembly, and disturbing the peace by loud noise.
In October, Marcus Montgomery, Joshua Powell, and Amman Asfaw were added as co-defendants in the case.
Montgomery is charged with false imprisonment, obstructing the free movement of a person in a public place, and resisting or delaying a peace officer. Powell is charged with resisting or delaying a peace officer, and Asfaw faces a charge of false imprisonment.
In a separate but related case, Robert Lastra Jr., Sam Grocott, and Jerad Hill also face charges in connection with the protest.
Lastra is charged with false imprisonment and felony vandalism for allegedly throwing a skateboard at a silver BMW, breaking the car's back window. Grocott, who told KSBY News he was struck by the BMW, is facing three charges of false imprisonment, and Hill is charged with one count each of false imprisonment and vandalism.
Elias Bautista, who police say assaulted an officer during Arata's arrest on July 21, has pleaded not guilty to charges of resisting an executive officer and resisting, obstructing or delaying a peace officer.