Hillsborough state attorney won’t prosecute muralists, protesters; charges 120 others

State Attorney Andrew Warren made decisions on filing charges in several high-profile incidents in Hillsborough County.
Black Lives Matter and pro-law enforcement demonstrators taunt each other in front of Tampa Police headquarters on Wednesday, August 12, 2020 in Tampa.
Black Lives Matter and pro-law enforcement demonstrators taunt each other in front of Tampa Police headquarters on Wednesday, August 12, 2020 in Tampa. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Sept. 4, 2020|Updated Sept. 4, 2020

Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren announced Friday he was dropping charges against several anti-racism protesters and organizers. The county’s top prosecutor also said he was pursuing 264 charges — including looting and attacking police — mostly stemming from a night of civil unrest May 30, as well as a reckless driving charge against a man who drove through a July 4 protest in Tampa.

According to a news release, Warren will not pursue a battery charge against protester Jae Passmore, saying the State Attorney’s Office was “exercising our discretion not to expend limited resources prosecuting an extremely minor incident that presents no threat to public safety.”

Warren will also not pursue false imprisonment charges against protesters Sadie Dean and Torrie Grogan that stemmed from an encounter with pro-police demonstrators.

The news release says 120 people will be charged, most in connection to late May’s unrest. The charges include burglary and theft and criminal mischief. Warren said he would also pursue a reckless driving charge against Noah Armstrong, a 21-year-old man accused of driving through a July 4 protest.

In addition, Warren said he wouldn’t pursue charges against demonstrators responsible for the “Back the Blue” mural outside the Tampa Police Department, nor would he charge protesters accused of painting over it or the demonstrators accused of trying to paint a public walkway at Curtis Hixon Park.

“These types of cases involve tough decisions,” Warren said in the news release. “The 264 charges filed to date make it clear that we will prosecute those who seek to harm our community, but it is counterproductive to criminally prosecute people who are exercising their First Amendment rights—especially when other options exist to address questionable behavior, such as civil citations.”

Related: Police records detail chaotic night in Tampa as businesses were looted

Both the Tampa Police Department, whose officers made most of the arrests, and the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office declined to comment.

Police said Passmore, a prominent protester and community organizer, struck a police supporter in the head during a confrontation last month, but video released by Tampa police did not show her slapping anyone; it showed her lightly pushing a man who stepped in her path.

Passmore said the decision not to charge was relieving and validating, but that she’ll continue to fight for other people she believes have been wrongfully arrested. She said police are using arrests to target and harass protesters.

“Though I’m so grateful and happy that I got my charges dropped, we have to recognize that the reason why the charges got dropped was because they didn’t have the evidence because there wasn’t a reason to arrest me in the first place, and that’s so true for so many other people who are facing charges,” she said. “Tampa police didn’t care if the state attorney could take these charges to trial — they just wanted to use the arrest and charges to intimidate people.”

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Passmore’s attorney, Gretchen Cothron, praised Warren’s office for being “really willing to look at the cases and investigate them and not just blindly file charges on whoever police charge.”

Cothron’s other prominent case was not among those Warren’s office updated Friday: Prosecutors have still not decided whether to charge Stuart Flores, a protester who was arrested in June after a motorist drove into a demonstration and sped away with Flores clinging to his hood. The driver was not arrested.

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

Nor has an arrest been made in another case involving Passmore in which a pickup driver cursed at protesters before striking Passmore, leaving her with a concussion and other injuries. Cothron said the State Attorney’s Office, rather than the Tampa Police Department, is now investigating that case.

“I feel that some justice has been done,” Cothron said. “We still have a ways to go with charging the hit-and-run drivers, but having the charges dropped is — I’m ecstatic.”

Haydee Oropesa, a defense attorney who represents Dean and Grogan, said Friday that Warren made the right decision.

”Today I was able to breathe a sigh of relief, and so did my clients,” Oropesa said.

Candace and James Mergens, listed by police as the victim and a witness in the case, declined to comment Friday.

Dean and Grogan’s arrests were based on a June 27 encounter with Candace Mergens, who was holding a sign supporting Tampa police, and her husband, James Mergens, in the Hyde Park Village neighborhood.

Protesters and the Mergenses were arguing near the entrance of a parking garage stairwell. Dean and Grogan tried to separate the parties, they told police and the Times. James Mergens pulled his wife inside the stairwell. She tried to push the door open, and Dean and Grogan held it shut for about 5 seconds before walking away.

Tampa police said in arrest reports that holding the door closed restrained “the victim against her will and from being able to move freely.”

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

Social justice activist groups said the arrests were the latest in a line of attempts to intimidate and silence protesters.

”This intervention should signal to Tampa police that they must end their campaign of harassment and intimidation against Black protesters,” said Scott Roberts, senior director of criminal justice campaigns for the national civil rights organization Color of Change, for whom Dean is an organizer.

The police department has denied the harassment and intimidation allegations.

Roberts said Friday in a statement that a petition to drop the charges had gained more than 50,000 signatures and reinforced calls by protesters to fire police Chief Brian Dugan.

“There is no indication that Dugan or the Tampa Police Department will stop their efforts to harass and intimidate people speaking out against the corrupt, violent and racist police in Tampa and around the country,” Roberts said. “Tampa must have new police leadership now. Black lives are at stake.”

Some of the tension between anti-racism protesters and police supporters have swirled around a “Back the Blue” mural painted, without a permit by police supporters outside the Tampa Police Department’s headquarters early last month.

It was defaced with splotches of paint days after it appeared. Warren declined Friday to prosecute both the “Back the Blue” muralists and three teens arrested for allegedly splashing paint on it, as he found that evidence didn’t point toward either group acting “with willful or malicious intent.”

Days later, a group gathered at Curtis Hixon Park to paint a mural without a permit, as the “Back the Blue” muralists had, “to see if there was a double standard in Tampa,” as one demonstrator put it. Officers rushed in and arrested seven people.

Warren said Friday he won’t prosecute any of the people arrested in that case.

Related: Arrested Tampa muralists say jail deputies abused them

Among those whose charges were announced Friday is Noah Armstrong, who on July 4 pulled onto a turn lane of N Dale Mabry Highway and drove around other cars before driving through an intersection full of demonstrators.

In a statement, Armstrong’s family called the charge “unwarranted and unreasonable” and said they plan to fight the charge in court.

“Noah was afraid for his life from the violent criminals who were blocking the road and falsely imprisoning innocent drivers,” the statement said. “Though the Tampa Police Department has stated Noah admitted to this offense this is an untruthful statement. Noah did not act with criminal intent or disregard.”

That statement said video shows Armstrong crossing through the intersection well below the speed limit, with a green light, and that protesters threatened to kill him, tried to open his door and damaged his car. Video from the scene shows protesters darting out of the way as Armstrong drives through the crowd.

”He tried to drive around this unlawful mob in an orderly and considerate fashion at a slow rate of speed, careful not to strike or injure anyone and was immediately attacked by assailants that chased and struck his vehicle,” the statement said.

Armstrong and his family say they have received death threats on social media and at their home by masked men since the incident and have reported the threats to police.

“Like the rest of America, Hillsborough County continues to struggle with issues of racial injustice in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder,” Warren said in the news release. “Although the voices of protest have already resulted in productive dialogue and promising reforms, we can do better. From our office’s exercise of prosecutorial discretion, to law enforcement agencies’ encounters with protesters, to citizens’ tolerance of differing opinions, there is room for improvement.”

Times staff writer Dan Sullivan contributed to this report.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Noah Armstrong had been arrested last week and that he had driven onto the shoulder of Dale Mabry Highway during a July 4 protest in Tampa. He has not been arrested and he had driven onto a turn lane.

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