UPDATE - Prosecutors: No charges for 16 of 17 Capitol protesters

The OlympianMay 13, 2011 

Sixteen protesters arrested at the state Capitol last month won't face disorderly-conduct charges if they stay off the Capitol Campus for six months, Thurston County prosecutors said today.

However, two felony-assault charges still are pending against a 56-year-old Walla Walla man, Louis Gonzales III, who works for the Service Employees International Union 775 Northwest.

"He struck one trooper in the leg and then struck another trooper by twisting his torso around and using his elbow," senior deputy prosecutor Jack Jones said.

The union organized the protest and it included a crowd of SEIU homecare workers trying to storm the lobby of Gov. Chris Gregoire's office. Most were "grandmothers," SEIU spokesman Adam Glickman said.

Seattle lawyer Dmitri Iglitzin, whose firm does work for SEIU, said Gonzales did not commit the third-degree felony assaults on police as alleged by prosecutors. He said there are “really an astounding number of videotapes” of the incident to show no crime was committed.

“I am extremely pleased that the prosecutor’s office has recognized that no crime was committed by the (16) individuals in this protest …” Iglitzin added. “I am extremely distressed that the prosecutor’s office has not yet reached that recognition with respect to Louis Gonzales.”

Iglitzin said he intends to talk further with prosecutors.

The protest had targeted budget cuts that have already reduced funding for elder care – including 10 percent cuts in the hours of state-paid care provided to disabled and elderly clients by homecare workers. The protesters also called for closure of tax breaks for banks, out-of-state shoppers, jet plane owners and others to pay for those services.

The protest was part of a four-day wave of actions at the Capitol that included a labor rally of more than 7,000 people the following day that had no arrests.

Senior deputy prosecutor Joseph Wheeler handled the disorderly conduct cases against the 16 SEIU homecare workers who are getting informal deferrals of prosecution. He said no charges were ever filed and that a decision to close the cases after Sept. 7 is dependent on the 16 obeying a State Patrol no-trespass order at the Capitol.

“We have decided to do in house monitoring rather than a formal diversion (of charges),” Wheeler added in an e-mailed response to questions. “This was a peaceful protest with cooperation between the protesters and the State Patrol such that this appeared to be in the best interests of justice to offer these individuals a chance to avoid a conviction for trespass.’’

[A story with additional information is in the works for tomorrow's print editions.]

UPDATE: Prosecutor Jon Tunheim got back to me and had more to say about the 16 deferrals of prosecution. "Basically I am trying to offer them the opportunity to not have this go into any kind of criminal litigation," he said. "Our primary goal is to prevent this kind of conduct for the rest of this session."

Tunheim said a six-month period is typical in diversion cases. He also quibbled a bit with his own deputy on one point. “I’m not sure it was a peaceful protest. There was a basis for the initial arrest and the action the officers took," Tunheim said.

The decision not to press charges came after looking at the facts, including the protesters' lack of criminal history and quick dispersal of the crowd, he said.

UPDATE 2: Former state lawmaker Brendan Williams just sent me an email questioning the no-trespass orders from the State Patrol. He said:

I do not understand how it is an appropriate punishment to exclude from the political process 16 people who are being completely marginalized by the political process. Surely "the right of the people peaceably to assemble" cannot be trumped by prosecutorial fist. ... It just seems utterly symbolic to altogether exclude citizens who care for those with disabilities from a facility where their voices are already ignored in favor of the "money talks" crowd. In the earlier overreaction to their protest, when everyone but registered lobbyists was kicked out under a building lockdown, I thought I saw a formalization of the status quo. This goes a step further by equating assembly with trespass.

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