Five protesters who blocked the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge on Martin Luther King Jr. Day pleaded no contest Monday to misdemeanor obstruction charges, San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe said Tuesday.
The protesters entered the pleas in exchange for a sentence of probation, community service, restitution to the California Highway Patrol and a Stanford University class on the First Amendment, according to Wagstaffe.
So far, 16 of the 68 Stanford University students arrested on the bridge that afternoon have taken the plea deal with prosecutors. Two of the protesters turned out to be journalists and had their charges dismissed, while the rest have their cases set for jury trial in the coming weeks and months.
The maximum sentence they face at trial is a year in jail and a $1,000 fine, Wagstaffe said.
The protesters were dropped off near the end of the bridge's westbound span at about 4:50 p.m. on Jan. 19 and blocked the entire bridge.
About 30 CHP units responded but it took about 25 minutes to get even a single lane of the bridge open and hours more to make the 68 arrests.
Traffic toward the bridge was backed up for miles and the sudden stops led to a few minor collisions, according to the CHP.
The demonstrators were there as part of the "Black Lives Matter" movement, which organized nationwide in the wake of controversial non-indictments in police killings of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York. The Stanford protesters connected that movement to struggles overseas, including of Palestinians.
Wagstaffe said today he chose to aggressively prosecute the bridge protesters because of the impact on drivers that day who were stuck in gridlocked traffic.
He said that while the protest was very peaceful, in terms of impact, "They harmed innocent people who didn't deserve it in my mind."
"By design I wanted to take a more aggressive approach and I think it was appropriate," he said.
Wagstaffe said his office does not always choose to prosecute disruptive protests. He said his office declined to file charges against protesters who shut down two San Mateo County Board of Supervisors meetings late last year during a dispute over wages for in-home care workers.
As they only disrupted public meetings and not a broader population, Wagstaffe said their actions did not call for criminal charges.
But for the bridge protesters, Wagstaffe said he thought the impact on commuters called for a more severe penalty. But he said he doesn't think jail time is appropriate.
"I did not want jail for them and I did not want a fine," Wagstaffe said. "I didn't want a fine their parents could pay for them, I wanted them to give something back to the community."
The plea deal offered to protesters includes two years of probation, 30 hours of community service, $440 in restitution to the CHP for overtime costs, and completion of a four-hour First Amendment class through Stanford. A prosecutor with Wagstaffe's office will be teaching a portion of that class, he said.
On May 26, 25 of the remaining protesters will return to court for jury trial. The rest have court dates scheduled in June and July.