A Murrieta law firm is suing California Highway Patrol and one of its officers because three members of Calvary Chapel Hemet were arrested while reading the Bible aloud in a DMV parking lot in Hemet.
Advocates for Faith & Freedom filed a complaint April 25 with the United States District Court Riverside Courthouse, alleging the federal and state constitutional rights of the three men were violated when they were arrested unlawfully.
"We look at it as this is the United States of America and it was obvious that this officer acted before he thought," said Bob Tyler, one of the attorneys representing the men.
Pastor Brett Coronado, Mark Mackey and Edmond Flores, Jr., all residents of Hemet, were assembled at the DMV Feb. 2 just after 8 a.m. when Mackey began reading scripture aloud. The DMV was scheduled to open at 9 a.m.
As shown in video footage captured during the arrest, a security guard tells the men they need to go somewhere else. Shortly after, a CHP officer pulls up, walks over to the men, takes a Bible out of Mackey's hands and puts handcuffs on him. When asking why he was being arrested, Tyler said the CHP officer, Darren Meyer, did not give an answer.
"The first question is: did he ask him to leave? He did not," Tyler said.
The two other men where arrested shortly after, and all were taken to a CHP Inspection Facility in Beaumont where they were held in handcuffs for 90 minutes, according to a complaint filed by Advocates for Faith & Freedom. Neither Coronado nor Flores ever read the Bible out loud anywhere on DMV premises, their attorneys claim.
According to California Penal Code 602.1 (b), the offense is listed as: "intentionally interfering with any lawful business carried on by the employees of a public agency open to the public, by obstructing or intimidating those attempting to carry on business, or those persons there to transact business with the public agency, and who refuses to leave the premises of the public agency after being requested to leave by the office manager or a supervisor of the public agency, or by a peace officer acting at the request of the office manager or a supervisor of the public agency."
The misdemeanor offense is punishable by a $400 fine or jail time. None of the men received jail time in the matter, and the law firm said the Riverside County District Attorney has not filed any criminal charges.
According to a news release from Advocates for Faith & Freedom, the men believed that they had a First Amendment right to free speech as they were standing in a planter within the parking lot and were located on public property.
According to Tyler, the charge of “impeding an open business” was enacted in large part to protect businesses against protestors who block the doors of an open business, such as at an abortion clinic. At the time of the arrest of these men, the DMV was closed, and they were standing at least 50 feet away from the entrance, he said.
“This is an abuse of power on the part of the CHP,” said Jennifer Monk, associate attorney with Advocates for Faith & Freedom. “The arresting officer could find no appropriate penal code to use when arresting these men. The purpose of the arrests appears to have been to censor them.”
"Whether this was an intentional violation of our clients' constitutional liberty or whether this was an act of ignorance on the part of the CHP, this lawsuit is important in order to preserve the liberty to read the Bible aloud on public property without fear of criminal prosecution,” Tyler said.
Lt. Michael Soubirous, of the San Gorgonio Pass CHP Station, which oversees the Hemet area, said during a phone interview Tuesday that they had not yet been served papers in the lawsuit. Soubirous explained that CHP has jurisdiction over state-owned property such as DMV offices.
"The whole thing is, when you go to the DMV, you are not allowed to do any other business," Soubirous said. 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 believes 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.