Three people accused of illegally gathering in a Palm Desert park during last year's Occupy Coachella Valley protests were swept up in a police "ambush'' intended to intimidate and make examples of the demonstrators, an attorney said today.
"This was about casting a dragnet to randomly catch anything and
everything in its path,'' defense attorney Mark Foster told jurors in his
closing statement. "You've heard this was the most conciliatory group
imaginable. So why didn't the city of Palm Desert just provide notification
(that it wanted the park cleared)? Because it wanted these arrests to happen.''
Foster's client, former U.S. Marine Jack Lee Noftsger, 28, is charged
alongside 32-year-old Dustin David Powell and 23-year-old Mary Elizabeth Walker with unlawful assembly for allegedly occupying Civic Center Park last October.
A fourth defendant, Stephen Mark Finger, 59, was also charged with the
misdemeanor, but his attorney, Aimee Larsen, successfully argued last week for
a dismissal of the allegation based on evidence that he was not actively
involved in the protest at the time of his arrest.
All of the defendants were taken into custody during a sheriff's sweep
shortly after midnight on Nov. 1.
The Riverside County District Attorney's Office says the protesters were
given ample opportunity to depart the park after the city of Palm Desert
refused to grant another temporary use permit for use of the grounds, as it had between Oct. 24 and Oct. 28, but some demonstrators wouldn't budge.
According to prosecutors, by anchoring themselves in a public square as
a group, the defendants constituted an unlawful assembly.
But their attorneys countered that the Nov. 1 law enforcement operation
was staged to frighten protesters away for good.
"This stealth police raid was an ambush,'' Foster said. "They planned
these arrests. They didn't want to go with a simple cite and release. If
(authorities) had made a simple announcement telling my client and others to
leave the area, would we be here today? No.''
The three Occupy protesters had remained in the park in defiance of an
11 p.m. city curfew order, according to testimony from the weeklong trial.
Deputy Grant Grasso testified that the protesters had been given ``multiple
warnings'' to leave before he and fellow deputies, led by then-Lt. Andrew
Shouse, conducted the sweep.
But Foster and Deputy Public Defender Roger Tansey, representing Powell
and Walker, argued their clients were arrested for effect rather than any act
of genuine civil disobedience.
"They never declared an unlawful assembly, yet they turned right around
and arrested them for that,'' Tansey told jurors. "This case is not just
about government overreach; it's about government overkill. This was a police
ambush on peaceful people. This is about stifling dissent.''
The attorney said there was no "violence'' in the park until deputies
began making arrests, throwing people to the ground and handcuffing them.
Noftsger had to be awakened in his tent before deputies arrested him.
"They were getting ready to leave,'' Foster said. "There was no
permanent occupation. And the police come along and conduct this crazy,
confusing, botched operation, sneaking up on people without making any
"This case is about the letter of the law trumping the spirit of the
law. It's about making a mountain out of a molehill. Do we really want to live
in a state where the government throws the book at somebody for a technical
The defendants, free on their own recognizance, were affiliated with the
national Occupy Wall Street movement, decrying the disparities between rich