Major Charges Dropped for Willits Bypass Protestor

from Save Little Lake Valley

willparrishIn a major victory for activists everywhere who stand up against the destruction of natural communities, journalist Will Parrish settled his case with the Mendocino County District Attorney’s office today on favorable terms.  Parrish pled no contest to two counts of “unlawful entry,” both misdemeanors, that will drop to infractions after a “deferred judgment” period of 24 months.

Parrish had previously faced 16 misdemeanors, including 14 counts of unlawful entry and two counts of resisting arrest, as well as three possible misdemeanor counts of contempt of court for allegedly violating a court-sanctioned order to stay away from the Willits Bypass construction area.  These charges carried a maximum jail sentence of eight years.

Among other stipulations, Parrish will perform 100 hours of community service (“the easiest thing in he world for me to do,” Parrish noted) and has agreed not to interfere physically with the Willits Bypass construction during the deferred judgment period.

In a first for Willits Bypass protesters who have faced misdemeanor charges, Parrish has no “stay-away order.”  He can congregate anywhere the public is allowed, without fear of being arrested, which he was this past September 18th while attempting to report for the Anderson Valley Advertiser and KMUD News on a California Highway Patrol SWAT team extraction of tree sitters.  In that case, four CHP officers sprinted across Highway 101 to arrest him as he stood on private property, while a CHP chopper pursued and surveilled him from overhead.

This last stipulation is a big victory with respect to Parrish’s 1st Amendment right to continue covering the Bypass for the AVA and other news outlets.

The plea also includes a provision that the DA’s office won’t file a charge that Parrish was in contempt of court for allegedly violating a stay-away order in connection with his September arrest.

Finally, there is the matter of restitution.  Parrish’s attorneys and the prosecution have been negotiating regarding a restitution amount, with the likely outcome that it will be a small fraction of what Caltrans had asked for. Unless the prosecution and defense agree on an amount beforehand, the court will hold a restitution hearing in April.

Caltrans has pursued nearly a half-million dollars in restitution against Parrish.  The Anderson Valley Advertiser published an excellent editorial this week exposing the utter absurdity of Caltrans’ claim, and the greed that underlies it.

Despite only a few days of promotional notice concerning the pre-trial, more than 75 people turned out in support of Parrish.  As the court proceedings were wrapping up, Judge John Behnke turned toward the assembled throng and said, rather wryly, “This is the biggest crowd this courtroom has ever had at an uncontested hearing.”

He added, “I do recognize that the broader issue [of the Willits Bypass] has been very contested for quite some time.”

Following the court proceedings, Parrish and his supporters gathered for a press conference and rally on the courthouse steps.  Rosamond Crowder gave an overview of damage the Caltrans Bypass wreaks on Little Lake Valley’s watershed and water supplyOmar Figueroa, Parrish’s attorney, gave a stirring speech about the importance of standing up to ecosystem destruction, stressing that “lawyers like me will stand up with you and keep you out jail.”

Parrish then gave a speech that was interrupted multiple times by sustained applause.  “This settlement is not everything I could have hoped for, but it’s one I can live with,” Parrish said.  “What I can’t live with is global climate change.  What I can’t live with is destruction of wetlands.  What I can’t live with is a power structure that is accustomed to steamrolling over anything and anyone that stands in its way, such as we have personally experienced in Little Lake Valley.

He continued, “With my energy freed up by this settlement, I promise to continue to stand side by side, and link arms, with anyone else who is standing up to oppose these things.”

Willits City Council member Madge Strong and Earth First!’s Naomi Wagner also offered remarks.

The Parrish settlement seems to signal a wider unspoken agreement between the DA’s office and the Willits Bypass opposition.  Although the DA filed a spate of misdemeanor charges against protestors in recent cases, the DA’s office is now saying its approach to handling protestors is to file their violations as infractions (generally equivalent to parking tickets).  We expect this posture to mean the DA will not be pursuing further charges against protesters after the case against tree sitter Mark Herbert resolves.

“From the beginning, the District Attorney’s Office has attempted to allow free speech while minimizing the cost to the taxpayers by filing infractions,” Mendocino County District Attorney’s Office spokesman Mike Geniella, a former Santa Rosa Press Democrat editor, was quoted as saying in the Ukiah Daily Journal.

By contrast, on a recent edition of KMUD Evening News, Geniella made the bogus claim that Parrish had turned down a plea offer that entailed no restitution. The DA never made any such offer.  “Geniella was either lying or he is misinformed,” Parrish stated at the January 23rd rally.

Now that his legal tribulations are winding down, Parrish intends to continue his work to protect and enhance natural communities, stand up for social justice, work in solidarity with Indigenous people, and expose the systemic abuses of power structures in Northern California and beyond via his writings.  He says he looks forward to performing his community service work at organizations such as the North Coast Opportunities Community Gardens Project, the North Coast Audubon Society, and the Mendocino Environmental Center.

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