Two former members of a Hemet church arrested for reading Bible passages outside a DMV office were acquitted of demonstrating on government property without a permit, attorneys on both sides confirmed today.
Brett Anthony Coronado, 44, and Mark Allen Mackey, 60, were both found not guilty of one misdemeanor count of conducting a demonstration on state grounds without a permit. They were arrested Feb. 2, 2011, outside the DMV office at 1200 S. State St. in Hemet and later freed on their own recognizance.
Riverside County Superior Court Judge Timothy Freer acquitted Coronado and Mackey before the defense had presented its case, ruling that there wasn't enough evidence to prove that the men conducted a demonstration or gathering, according to defense co-counsel Robert Tyler.
The court trial -- a case tried without a jury -- started Aug. 5 at the Southwest Justice Center in Murrieta and ended Tuesday.
"I think this was the correct and the lawful decision. These two men were just exercising their First Amendment right to free speech, simply sharing their faith on public property, and criminal charges should never have been filed," Nic Cocis, the defendants' other attorney, told City News Service.
Tyler said their clients "were convinced they didn't do anything wrong, they didn't need a permit to do what they were doing, and the judge agreed."
Shortly after 8 on the morning of their arrests, Coronado, a former assistant pastor at Calvary Chapel in Hemet, and Mackey, who worked in the church's evangelical ministries, stood about 50 feet away from the DMV office, in the parking lot, and read passages from the New Testament.
In a YouTube video, Coronado said the purpose was to spread the gospel to the people lined up outside, waiting for the DMV to open.
As Mackey was reading, a DMV security guard approached and ordered him "to go some place else." Mackey refused and continued reading, with Coronado at his side, the video shows.
Twenty minutes later, California Highway Patrol Officer Darren Meyer arrived at the location, and after briefly conferring with the security guard, confronted Mackey, snatched his Bible, handed it to Coronado and arrested Mackey on suspicion of trespassing, according to the video and court documents.
"What have I done wrong?" Mackey asks in the video.
"You've been asked to leave, and you didn't," Meyer replies. "You can preach on your own property. You can preach on a street corner. But you're not allowed to preach here because this is a captive audience."
When Coronado asks Meyer to cite the specific statute that Mackey has violated, the CHP officer replies, "You want to go, too? I'm giving you the option: You want to leave or you want to be arrested?"
A few minutes later, another CHP officer arrived and arrested Coronado on suspicion of impeding a business. Another member of the ministry, Edmond Flores, also was taken into custody, but was not charged.
Coronado, Mackey and Flores filed a civil liberties lawsuit less than two months later, alleging Meyer, and by extension the CHP, had violated their First, Fourth and 14th amendment rights, along with the "liberty" clause of the California Constitution.
"Defendant, the CHP and the DMV all have engaged in the selective enforcement of a vague, overbroad and discretionary process of determining what expression will be allowed, and their enforcement has been inconsistent and viewpoint discriminatory," according to the suit, which is being handled on behalf of the plaintiffs by Murrieta-based Advocates for Faith and Freedom, a nonprofit law firm that handles religious liberty cases.
"In this instance, defendant prohibited plaintiffs' expressive activity because they were reading from the Bible and expressing religious viewpoints," the suit alleges. "Defendant's actions ... were harmful to plaintiffs because it violated their right to free speech ... under the United States Constitution."
The complaint alleges the men were victims of false imprisonment and asks the court to declare religious speech outside the DMV office lawful, and to prohibit Meyer and any other state law enforcement official from arresting people for trespassing without justification.
Meyer, now the public information officer for the CHP's San Gorgonio
office in Beaumont, sought immediate dismissal of the lawsuit based on federal
judicial findings that law enforcement officers acting within their official
capacity cannot be sued for carrying out their duty.
Meyer's CHP supervisor at the time, Lt. Michael Soubirous, defended the officer's actions.
"The whole thing is, when you go to the DMV, you are not allowed to
do any other business," Soubirous told Patch in April 2011.
He said the men did not have a permit to speak there, which is required on state property for anything other than the intended business.
"We would have granted them a permit to go out and preach," Soubirous said. "There is a mechanism to be allowed to protest...We don't inhibit people's right to free speech--we regulate it."
He said he believed the group was aware of the permitting process, and that CHP officers had had prior contact with them.
He added that the same principles apply to a DMV office as do at the State Capitol building, which is also under the jurisdiction of CHP.
"I do know that what goes on at the State Capitol, where they have 15
protests a day, may seem foreign to groups here," Soubirous said at the time.
In September 2011, Los Angeles-based U.S. District Judge Dolly M. Gee suspended further hearings on the suit until the criminal case against Coronado and Mackey was resolved. Tyler, general counsel for Advocates for Faith and Freedom, said today his firm would tell the federal court they are ready to proceed.
He told City News Service he thought the criminal prosecution of Coronado and Mackey "was somewhat retaliatory because we filed a federal lawsuit."
"They were really just trumped-up charges to try to prosecute our clients and we believe we'll be able to proceed forward with this (lawsuit)," he alleged.
Riverside County District Attorney's Office spokesman John Hall said his
office believes the judge "was incorrect in his analysis of the law as it
relates to this issue. We are looking into whether or not we have any appellate
The lawsuit was filed in April 2011 and the criminal charge filed in August 2011.
The criminal case was heard by a judge, according to Hall, because the defense had requested that and both sides waived their right to a jury trial.
Cocis said Coronado and Mackey are now with another church.