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Arrest of Tampa protesters under scrutiny; lawyer calls it a ‘joke charge’

A dispute between Black Lives Matter and pro-police protesters leads to criminal charges. But one of the women arrested and her lawyer say the arrest could have been handled far more peacefully.

Sadie Dean was working from her St. Petersburg apartment on an August afternoon when she heard a knock on the door.

Dean, a community organizer and participant in recent protests condemning police brutality, looked through the peephole and saw what looked like a maintenance man, she said.

She opened the door — and six or more Pinellas County Sheriff’s deputies swooped in and arrested her, she said.

She was so caught off guard that she wasn’t wearing underwear. When she asked if she could change before they took her away, she said deputies told her no.

“It was horrifying,” said Dean, 31.

The deputies arrested her on Aug. 21 on a Hillsborough County warrant stemming from a June 27 encounter between Black Lives Matter protesters and a pro-police demonstrator. Dean and a second protester, Torrie Grogan, both face charges of false imprisonment — a third-degree felony.

Now, several aspects of the case are being scrutinized by defense lawyers and racial justice groups — including the way Dean was taken into custody.

The attorney representing both protesters, Haydee Oropesa, said she contacted Tampa officials several times to find out if they planned to arrest Dean and, if so, arrange to turn her in peacefully. She got no response, she said. The attorney and Dean said they didn’t become aware of the warrant until Dean’s arrest.

“They have a vendetta against her because she’s a loud mouth,” said Oropesa, who plans to fight the charges. “They don’t like protesters. They don’t like to be criticized.”

Related: Are Tampa Bay police targeting protest leaders?

Social justice activist groups, too, have said the arrests are the latest efforts by Tampa police to intimidate and silence protesters. The national civil rights advocacy organization Color of Change, for which Dean is a community organizer, started a petition demanding Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren drop the charges.

The Tampa Bay Times asked two lawyers who are not involved in the case to review police documents and a video of the incident shared on social media. They say prosecutors face a steep path proving the case to a jury.

“This is a joke charge,” said Clearwater defense attorney Roger Futerman. “If I was a prosecutor objectively deciding whether this should be filed or not, I would recommend not to file these charges. And if I was a defense lawyer representing these people, I would be salivating.”

In response to the retaliation allegations, Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan said the agency has “worked with multiple organizers to coordinate marches and educate them on laws and safety” and pointed out there have been multiple protests that haven’t resulted in arrests. Dugan added that the agency worked with the State Attorney’s Office on the charges and that a judge signed off on Dean’s arrest warrant.

A State Attorney’s Office spokesman declined to answer questions about the case, but said in a statement that “staff participated in the initial review of the case, as we routinely do, and we continue to review and investigate this matter. We will provide updates as we are able and as the case progresses.”

• • •

The Tampa Police Department based the arrest off accounts from Candace Mergens and her husband, James Mergens. Detectives also cited a video of the incident, recorded by a Times reporter covering the June 27 march in Hyde Park Village and posted to the reporter’s public Twitter account. The Tampa couple reported the incident to officers that day, a police spokeswoman said.

It started with one protester trying to block Candace Mergens, who was holding a “Back TPD” sign. As the situation intensified, about a dozen protesters joined the fray, and James Mergens, 56, arrived to help his wife, 61, according to police reports. “Don’t you f--king touch my wife,” he can be heard saying on the video.

Dean appears as the argument gets more heated. The couple has their backs to a glass door leading into a parking garage next to Timpano Chophouse on W Swann Boulevard.

As the argument continues, another man holds open the door, and James Mergens pulls his wife inside.

Dean then pushes the door closed and puts up her middle finger, while yelling to get back inside. Candace Mergens appears to try to open the door. Dean and Grogan slam and hold the door shut for about 5 seconds before walking away.

The act of shutting and holding the door closed, police said, restrained “the victim against her will and from being able to move freely.”

The Mergens declined to discuss the case with a Times reporter but issued this statement: ”We were simply exercising our First Amendment rights to peacefully support the Tampa Police Department, and at no time did we ridicule or disparage the Black Lives Matter Movement. We strongly support the rights of people or groups to peacefully protest for their causes, including Black Lives Matter. Any questions regarding the charges stemming from this incident should be directed to the Hillsborough State Attorney’s Office for further comment.”

• • •

Tampa detectives interviewed Dean at her apartment on July 15. Dean said she was trying to deescalate the situation at the parking garage, according to the police report.

Dean, who has organized in Tampa for several years, told the Times that it’s best practice for protesters not to engage with detractors. But once the encounter was underway, her goal was to separate the groups before it got physical.

While the video shows Dean yelling and cursing, she said she was reacting to the Mergens and the other man, who she said were taunting protesters. And, she said, her frustration was rooted in a broader context: Just a week prior, Dean witnessed a driver ram into her friend, protest leader Jae Passmore. No one has been arrested in the incident.

“I completely understand that people are going to be like, ‘She’s a mad, angry Black woman,’” Dean said. But, she said, “I’m dealing with trauma on a weekly basis.”

Related: Tampa Bay drivers have run into protesters. Why haven’t they been arrested?

On July 16, as Grogan was leaving another protest, officers made an arrest on charges stemming from the June 27 incident and added a charge of resisting arrest. Grogan echoed that they were trying to separate the groups and feel police are using the false imprisonment charge to intimidate.

“They’re doing that to a lot of protesters to get us to be scared,” Grogan said.

Dean and her attorney suspected that, after Grogan’s arrest, Dean may be next. Oropesa said she called the detectives on July 17 to discuss the case, but her message was not returned. Tampa police spokeswoman Jamel Lanee’ said the primary detective in the case wasn’t working that day because of medical reasons.

Then Oropesa said she emailed Mayor Jane Castor and her communications director, Ashley Bauman. In one of the emails she shared with the Times, Oropesa, said that if the police department was trying to arrest her client, she would “like to coordinate her peaceful surrender.”

No one responded then or when she reached out again weeks later, said Oropesa, who has criticized Castor before via a website called Disaster Castor she created ahead of last year’s mayoral election.

Additionally, about a week after her interview with detectives, Dean said she attended another demonstration and was prepared to be arrested once police saw her. They didn’t.

“I did everything in my power to do the right thing, be present in front of TPD, peacefully surrender, whatever they needed,” Dean said.

• • •

Tampa detectives obtained a warrant to arrest Dean. Because she lives in Pinellas County, the task of serving the warrant was assigned to the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office Violent Offender Warrants Unit. That unit handles cases including forcible felonies, violent crimes and “any other significant offense,” a sheriff’s spokesman said.

Florida law defines false imprisonment as “forcibly, by threat, or secretly confining, abducting, imprisoning, or restraining another person without lawful authority and against her or his will.” It is among the lowest level of felony crimes and carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a $5,000 fine. Dean and Grogan were also arrested on misdemeanor battery charges related to the incident, but prosecutors have since dropped those charges.

Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said his deputies didn’t know the details of Dean’s case. They only knew the charges on her warrant.

When asked if deputies enlisted a maintenance man to get Dean to open her door, the sheriff said he didn’t know. But he said such ruses are sometimes used to get someone to open the door rather than deputies forcing their way inside.

Dean wasn’t allowed to change clothes because it was an “officer safety issue” to allow her back inside her apartment, Gualtieri said. Deputies believed someone else was in the house. Dean said she was home alone on a work call.

“The underlying crime is a crime of violence,” the sheriff said. “You’re going to handle it differently.”

Related: Pinellas protesters are being held overnight in jail without bail

When his agency seeks to arrest someone for crimes committed in his jurisdiction, the Pinellas sheriff said, his deputies generally allow them to turn themselves in — particularly if they’re represented by a lawyer.

“It’s a good practice,” Gualtieri said, although they’re not required to and may not depending on the severity of the charge.

The Tampa police spokeswoman said in a statement to the Times that “there was no need to follow up with her (Dean’s) attorney.”

“Each case is different, and the department is not obligated to contact a defendant or their attorney when there is a warrant out for their arrest,” Lanee’ said.

Lanee’ pointed out that Oropesa didn’t try to contact anyone else in the police department, instead going straight to Castor’s office. The mayor’s spokeswoman declined to comment, citing the open case.

Bill Loughery, a former Pinellas-Pasco prosecutor and one of the lawyers who reviewed the case for the Times, said he doesn’t have an issue with the arrest. He also said it’s not always prudent to tip off a defendant that they’re wanted on a warrant, in case they flee the area.

But proving the case beyond a reasonable doubt to a jury is a different story. Loughery said the false imprisonment charge is weak. The woman was in a stairwell in a parking garage, presumably with exits located elsewhere.

“It’s not so simple to say her freedom of movement was restricted,” he said. “I don’t think a jury’s going to buy that.”

• • •

Coverage of local and national protests from the Tampa Bay Times

HOW TO SUPPORT: Whether you’re protesting or staying inside, here are ways to educate yourself and support black-owned businesses.

WHAT PROTESTERS WANT: Protesters explain what changes would make them feel like the movement is successful.

WHAT ARE NON-LETHAL AND LESS-LETHAL WEAPONS? A guide to what’s used in local and national protests.

WHAT ARE ARRESTED PROTESTERS CHARGED WITH? About half the charges filed have included unlawful assembly.

CAN YOU BE FIRED FOR PROTESTING? In Florida, you can. Learn more.

HEADING TO A PROTEST? How to protect eyes from teargas, pepper spray and rubber bullets.

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