A Superior Court judge in California has acquitted two men of charges filed after they were caught by officers reading a Bible aloud near a line of people waiting to enter a state driver’s license office in Hemet, Calif.
Attorneys for the defendants said the state was required under state law, Title 13, Section 1860 of the California Administrative Code to show that the defendants were engaged in a “demonstration or gathering.”
But Judge Timothy Freer concluded there was not enough evidence to reach that conclusion.
“The prosecution failed to meet its burden of proof that our clients committed a crime when they read the Bible aloud in front [of] a line of people,” said Robert Tyler, general counsel for Advocates for Faith & Freedom, which worked on the case.
Nic Cocis, co-counsel for the defense, said: “These men were exercising their First Amendment right of free speech. They were simply sharing their faith on public property and the criminal charges should never have been filed.”
The defendants are Pastor Bret Coronado of Reconciled Christian Fellowship in Hemet and an elder in the church.
The judge entered the directed “not guilty” verdict on a motion from the defense after the prosecution rested.
“We were very pleased because Judge Freer also agreed that the law was unconstitutional because it gives too much unfettered discretion to law enforcement in determining whether someone’s speech or other expressive activity has the effect, intent or propensity to draw a crowd or onlookers,” said Tyler.
“Although Judge Freer’s final verdict did not include a finding on constitutionality, his comments certainly vindicate our argument that the law is unconstitutional.”
Advocates for Faith & Freedom filed a federal lawsuit for unlawful arrest before the criminal charges were filed against the men. That lawsuit was stayed pending the outcome of the criminal case.
The federal case will now proceed against the California Highway Patrol before Judge Dolly Gee in the U.S. District Court, Central District of California, in Los Angeles.
Cocis, who emigrated from Romania at the age of 13 when the nation still was controlled by a communist regime, said: “This case has particular importance to me because my family was persecuted for our Christian faith in communist Romania, and I will fight to protect the freedom of speech and to ensure that the same persecution doesn’t occur in the United States.”
The federal lawsuit claims the men were accused of “impeding an open business” even though they were at least 50 feet from the entrance and were impeding no one.
The men were arrested Feb. 2, 2011.
At the time, Jennifer Monk, associate general counsel with Advocates, described the arrests as “an abuse of power on the part of the CHP.”
The complaint argued the men’s activity “consisted solely of peacefully being present in the DMV’s parking lot and sidewalks and of Mr. Mackey’s reading aloud from the Bible.”
The case is brought on behalf of Coronado, Mark A. Mackey and Edmond M. Flores Jr.
“The CPH officers restricted plaintiffs’ speech because of its religious viewpoint,” the claim alleges.
See the arrests: