Testimony got under way today in the trial of four Palm Desert residents accused of unlawful activity connected with last fall's Occupy Coachella Valley protests.
Stephen Mark Finger, 59, Jack Lee Noftsger, 28, Dustin David Powell, 32,
and Mary Elizabeth Walker, 23, were arrested Nov. 1 on suspicion of camping
illegally in Palm Desert's Civic Center Park.
A jury was seated to hear evidence in the case, after which the prosecution summoned several witnesses before testimony wrapped up for the day.
The trial will resume tomorrow at the Riverside Hall of Justice, where the
hearing was moved because of a lack of courtroom availability in the Coachella
The defendants, free on their own recognizance, are each charged with
unlawful assembly and were among a number of people arrested during the
national Occupy Wall Street movement, from which a host of splinter groups
Members of the Palm Springs element had been in Civic Center Park since
The defendants were arrested by Riverside County sheriff's deputies sent
to the park to enforce the 11 p.m. curfew on Nov. 1.
The group was granted temporary use permits by the city over four days
in the last week of October, which allowed them to stay overnight in the public
square. The city declined to issue another permit at the end of the week, and
sheriff's deputies asked the protesters to leave.
Sheriff's Lt. Andrew Shouse said most complied, but "seven subjects
remained on the park property and were arrested.''
Two more people were arrested an hour later after they entered the park
"in defiance of officers who were securing the scene,'' Shouse said at the
time, adding that a third was arrested later that night.
City Attorney Robert Hargreaves said the city supported the group's
freedom of speech, but could not allow the park to be used as a campground for an extended period of time.
"By providing Occupy Coachella Valley with a highly visible, dry,
shaded space with 24-hour access to restrooms, the city accommodated the
group's First Amendment rights while protecting public health and safety and
the rights of our residents and visitors to continue using Civic Center Park,''
according to a city statement.
Co-defendant Ryan Donald Cartwright of Palm Springs pleaded guilty last
month to a misdemeanor charge of disturbing the peace and was sentenced to
three years probation and 40 hours of community service.
Gale Wheat of Indio, who was also arrested in connection with the
protest, pleaded guilty in February to an infraction for staying in the park
past curfew and was fined $125.