The California Attorney General's Office on Friday dismissed nearly all the charges against Tianna Arata and six other Black Lives Matter protesters in connection with a 2020 rally that saw protesters march onto Highway 101 and clash with motorists.
One defendant was dismissed altogether during Friday's hearing in San Luis Obispo Superior Court.
Arata, Robert Lastra, Samuel Grocott, Jerad Hill, Marcus Montgomery, Amman Asfaw and Joshua Powell were all charged with multiple crimes following the July 21, 2020, protest in San Luis Obispo.
Arata faced a total of 13 misdemeanors related to the protest - including counts of false imprisonment, obstructing a public thoroughfare and resisting arrest.
San Luis Obispo Superior Court Judge Matthew Guerrero kicked the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney's Office off the case in December 2020 after he found that a campaign email sent by District Attorney Dan Dow's wife asking for donations to help him "lead the fight against the wacky defund the police movement" was a "clear conflict of interest."
The email was sent in September 2020, following nationwide protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin that May.
Dow appealed the decision twice - once to the California Court of Appeal, which agreed with Guerrero, and again to the California Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case.
The California Attorney General's Office is now prosecuting the case.
"In our independent prosecutorial discretion, the people will be making a number of amendments to the complaints," California Deputy Attorney General William Frank said in court Friday.
The dropped and modified charges brought solace to many of the defendants, Brian Ford, Lastra's attorney, told The Tribune.
"It's a huge relief to finally see some progress in the case," Ford said. "The appellate process was a very long delay, and we always felt that the issue was very clear from the start. We felt the Judge Guerrero ruled very correctly from the start."
The case garnered widespread publicity at the time, with Arata appearing on multiple national news and talk shows.
Charges against BLM protestors dismissed, reduced
All but one of Arata's charges were dismissed in court Friday morning.
She now faces one count of misdemeanor obstructing a thoroughfare.
On Friday, the Attorney General's Office also adjusted the charges faced by Arata's co-defendants.
Montgomery and Asfaw now face misdemeanor charges of obstructing a thoroughfare. Montgomery and Powell face charges of resisting a peace officer, and Hill is charged with misdemeanor vandalism.
Lastra, who was previously charged with felony vandalism, had his charge reduced to a misdemeanor. He is alleged to have broken the back windshield of a BMW after it ran over Grocott.
A charge of misdemeanor false imprisonment was dismissed.
The case against Grocott, who was facing three misdemeanor charges of false imprisonment, was dismissed in its entirety.
Attorney: SLO County DA engaged in 'political prosecution'
Several of the lawyers representing the protesters said they feel the remaining charges are fair, with Asfaw's lawyer and Montgomery's lawyer planning to file motions regarding their clients.
"The biggest takeaway is just the fact that another prosecutor took a look at the same evidence in this case and came up with drastically different charging decisions," Ford said. "(It) says everything about what started this case."
Ford said Dow's office engaged in "political prosecution" to appeal to the "far-right, anti-Black Lives Matter, pro-police, pro-thin blue line mentality that really is out of vogue and needs to change because it leads to innocent people being killed, leads to corruption of power and leads to an abuse of the judicial process."
Curtis Briggs, Arata's attorney, told The Tribune the amended charges were a "victory," and a result of an unbiased process by the Attorney General's Office. He said he believes a majority of charges will be settled in diversion, which would wipe the charges from the defendant's criminal records.
Briggs said Dow's charging decisions were an "abuse of authority" and alleged Dow prosecuted the protesters for financial gain.
The defense attorney said Dow has "wasted hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars in trying to act like he was doing his job and now the cover has been pulled off."
"This was always a political prosecution," Briggs said. "Dan Dow's office was completely out of line the entire time they were prosecuting this case, and Dan Dow's office needs to be investigated for their behavior in this case. A civil grand jury should be convened and investigate Dan Dow's running of this office."
San Luis Obispo County Assistant District Attorney Eric Dobroth told the Tribune the District Attorney's Office will not respond to Briggs' statement.
"The California Attorney General's Office is now prosecuting these cases, and it is uniquely up to them to decide which charges they will pursue in court," Dobroth said.
Legal battle came at 'too high of a cost,' activist's mother says
Michelle Arata, Tianna Arata's mother, told The Tribune on Friday that the move to amend the charges faced by her daughter is "bittersweet."
"I'm incredibly grateful, and I'm so proud of these young people for everything they've accomplished," Michelle Arata said. "But it's come at too high of a cost already."
For the past nearly three years, Arata said, her daughter and the other defendants have had a difficult time as the case has continued through the court and appellate process.
Arata said the case has been hard mentally and emotionally, both for her daughter and the other charged protesters.
Arata added that the killing of Tyre Nichols by Memphis police officers serves as a reminder that the cause her daughter and the other protesters fought for remains relevant.
"We're still fighting what they originally were fighting for," she said. "In the larger context of police brutality (and) racism, the system is still broken."
Lastra said he is excited to begin living his life again and make plans for the future.
Before his felony charge, he had plans to potentially join the Peace Corps. Now, those plans are back on the table.
"(The change in charges) is obviously a relief, but I think it's kind of ridiculous that we've been going at this for about three years," he said. "There's tons of other things I'd like to do, but because of my situation I (couldn't) really take that step forward, so it's a relief that I finally have the go-ahead to do stuff."
Briggs told The Tribune that Tianna Arata's reaction to the news was initially shock, then gratitude that the attorney general "came in and did the right thing."
The next hearing in the case will be March 24.