San Luis Obispo BLM protesters win battle against a gag order

Tianna Arata standing on a highway barrier

By KAREN VELIE

A San Luis Obispo County judge on Friday denied a request by prosecutors to put a lid on the outspoken defendants and their attorneys in the case against a group of Black Lives Matter protesters who blocked traffic on Highway 101 last summer, held people against their will and allegedly damaged property.

SLO County prosecutors requested the gag order in March, arguing that some of the defendants and their attorneys had sought to use media coverage as a way to reach potential jurors. Since then, defendants Tianna Arata, Robert Lastra, Sam Grocott, Jerad Hill, Marcus Montgomery, Joshua Powell, Amman Asfaw and their attorneys have primarily been out of the spotlight.

Judge Roger Picquet denied the motion for a gag order without prejudice, noting that if circumstances change the court could revisit the gag order request.

“The Court is unable to find at the present time and under the current circumstances that there is a clear and present danger or serious and imminent threat to the right of a fair trial, or any other legitimate interest sought to be protected by the issuance of a Protective Order,” Judge Picquet wrote.

On July 21, 2020, Arata allegedly led approximately 300 protesters onto Highway 101, blocking all lanes in both directions for nearly an hour. While on the highway, protesters ran after vehicles attempting to drive off the freeway and yelled profanities at some of the drivers, according to videos of the protest.

Prosecutors charged Arata with one count of unlawful assembly, one count of disturbing the peace, six counts of obstruction of a thoroughfare, and five counts of false imprisonment — all misdemeanors.

The district attorney also filed two misdemeanor charges against Hill, three misdemeanor charges against Grocott, a felony charge of vandalism and a misdemeanor charge against Lastra, four misdemeanor charges against Montgomery and one misdemeanor charge each against Powell and Asfaw.

Late last year, Judge Matt Guerrero disqualify the SLO County District Attorney’s Office from prosecuting the BLM cases because “of a clear conflict of interest.” Prosecutors appealed Judge Guerrero’s ruling, which has delayed the cases from moving forward.

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