Two pastors who were arrested in 2011 for reading bible verses in front of a DMV in Hemet, Calif. have been found "not guilty" of trespassing, a superior court judge ruled Tuesday.
Riverside County Superior Court Judge Timothy Freer ruled that the prosecution's argument against the two pastors, Brett Coronado and Mark Mackey, had provided insufficient evidence for proving that the two church leaders had committed trespassing without a permit when they read bible verses in front of the local DMV in February 2011.
Following the five-day argument by the prosecution team, the pastors' defense team, Advocates for Faith & Freedom, requested that the judge grant a direct verdict, arguing that the prosecution had provided insufficient evidence. Judge Freer obliged, and a verdict was reached Tuesday evening. The ruling was made without a jury, at the defense's request.
In order for the pastors to be found guilty of trespassing without a permit to hold a demonstration, the prosecution had to prove that the men had drawn a crowd while preaching, instead of simply speaking in the same vicinity as those waiting for the DMV to open.
Defense attorney Robert Tyler argued that the case was less about the pastors' method of evangelism and more about the constitutional right to speak freely in a public setting. "This is not a case about whether someone would agree or disagree with their method of envangelism. This is really about their right to free speech and protecting that free speech," Tyler said, according to the Los Angeles Times.
"We did not even have to put on a defense," Murrieta-based criminal defense attorney Nic Cocis, another one of the men's defense lawyers, told the The Riverside Press-Enterprise.
Coronado, who leads Reconciled Christian Fellowship in Hemet, and Mackey, an elder at Calvary Chapel Hemet church, were arrested on February 2, 2011, for reading bible verses in the publically-owned parking lot of the DMV prior to the business' opening. A YouTube video shows the two men being arrested by California Highway Patrol Officer Darren Meyer, who said the men were in violation of preaching to a captive audience.
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Riverside County District Attorney Paul Zellerbach later charged the men with trespassing for failing to obtain a permit before gathering on state-owned property. Had they been found guilty of the misdemeanor, Coronado and Mackey could have each received 90 days in jail and a fine of $400.
The Riverside District Attorney's office has said that they disagree with Judge Freer's ruling and are seeking plans for an appeal. Now that Mackey and Coronado's criminal trial has ended, the pastors may move forward with their federal civil liberties lawsuit against Officer Meyer and the CHP for unlawful arrest.
The pastors, who are being represented again by Advocates for Faith & Freedom, argue in their complaint that their first amendment, fourth amendment, and 14th amendment rights were violated when they were arrested in Feb. 2011. This lawsuit was put on hold until the criminal lawsuit was completed.
Tyler told Christian News Network that his clients are pleased with the outcome of their case: "In a judicial system where justice seems to be fleeting in many instances, we are very excited that we won this case and are pleased to have had a judge who seriously considered the evidence and applied the law in a fashion that was intellectually honest regardless of his personal views."