MURRIETA, Calif. – Two men who were arrested for reading the Bible aloud outside of a California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) office were found not guilty today in a state superior court.
Riverside County Judge Timothy Freer agreed with attorneys for Pastor Brett Coronado and Mark Mackey that the prosecution failed to prove that the men had violated the law with their evangelistic activities.
As previously reported, the incident occurred in February 2011 when Coronado and Mackey, along with their friend Edward Florez, Jr., went to the DMV in Hemet early one morning to evangelize those who were waiting for the facility to open. As they stood in the publicly-owned parking lot, approximately 40 feet from the entrance, Mackey began to read out loud from the Bible.
However, soon after, he was approached by a security officer at the DMV, who asked him to move elsewhere. The men then asserted that they had a First Amendment right to engage in their activities, and Mackey continued to read from the Scriptures.
Approximately 10 minutes later, California patrol officer Darrin Meyer arrived on the scene, grabbed Mackey’s Bible, and put him in handcuffs. He informed the men that they could not “preach to a captive audience.”
“This is what the United States is coming to,” Mackey began to call out, holding his hands behind his back.
“You can preach on your own property,” Meyer said.
“What law was he breaking?” Coronado and Florez asked.
“Were you preaching too?” Meyer responded. “Do you want to leave or do you want to be arrested?”
When the men continued to inquire from a second officer as to why Mackey’s activities were considered unlawful, he put them both in handcuffs, citing them for “impeding an open business.”
After being released, the men retained the help of the Christian legal organization Advocates for Faith and Freedom, which soon filed a federal lawsuit against California Highway Patrol. However, Riverside County District Attorney Paul Zellerbach responded by charging two of the men, Mackey and Coronado, with trespassing for failing to obtain a permit to conduct a “demonstration or gathering in or upon any state buildings or grounds” and ordered the Christians to stand trial.
“This was a misdemeanor case, but it was so important to District Attorney Paul Zellerbach that he had one of his top felony prosecutors handling this case,” Bob Tyler, who represented the men in court along with affiliate attorney Nic Cosis, told Christian News Network. “It goes to show how politically motivated and ideologically driven this prosecution is.”
Tyler said that he found it interesting that the prosecution decided not to call the arresting officer to the stand.
“I think part of it is because they knew we would have cross examined him significantly on this idea that the officer claimed that they were violating the law [by] preaching to a captive audience,” he stated.
Instead, with the new trespassing charge leveled by Zellerbach’s office, the prosecution had to prove that the men were engaged in a “demonstration or gathering.” In order to evince guilt, prosecutor Scott Mason had to establish that the men drew a crowd, as opposed to merely speaking in the vicinity of those who were waiting in line to enter the DMV.
“They were not able to prove that they drew a crowd of onlookers, ” Tyler explained. “They didn’t present any witnesses who said they walked over and stood there and watched the men reading the Bible.”
“The prosecution failed to meet their burden of proof. They did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that our clients committed a crime under the law that they charged them with,” he outlined.
During the trial Tuesday, Tyler made a motion for a directed verdict just before it came time to put on evidence for the defense. Judge Freer granted the motion, stating that the prosecution’s argument was unconvincing.
“He agreed with us that the prosecution failed to meet their burden of proof, and entered a defense verdict on behalf of and in favor of our clients,” Tyler explained. “As part of his statement, he [also] said that he believed that the law is unconstitutional, but that he does not have to make that ruling because that issue is moot since he found that [the prosecution] did not meet their elements in the first place.”
Tyler says that he will now proceed with the civil suit that he filed against California Highway Patrol, which has been on hold pending the outcome of the trial.
“Our clients are very satisfied with the ruling,” he said. “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.”