A judge on Tuesday dismissed a criminal case against one of the Fresno Police Department’s harshest critics – the Rev. Floyd Harris Jr.
And Judge Adolfo Corona did it in Fresno County Superior Court without giving Harris a criminal record.
A year ago, Harris, a prominent African American leader in Fresno, pleaded not guilty to two misdemeanor charges of obstructing traffic and participating in or sponsoring an anti-police-brutality protest outside the downtown federal courthouse without a permit.
Fresno civil-rights lawyer Robert Navarro, who defended Harris, said Tuesday that a few days after the plea, Corona allowed Harris to withdraw his not guilty plea. The judge on Jan. 14, 2016, then told Harris if he stayed out of trouble for a year and didn’t engage in the type of conduct that led to the misdemeanor charges, the case would be dismissed as if it never happened, Navarro said.
Keeping his word, Corona on Tuesday wiped Harris’ record clean.
In the future, I hope the city becomes more accommodating to the public’s right to free speech.
Civil rights lawyer Robert Navarro
Navarro said Harris’ case was unusual because he was prosecuted by the City Attorney’s Office – not the District Attorney’s Office. Harris received notification of the charges through the mail, the lawyer said.
Navarro contended if Harris’ case had gone to trial, it would have had wide-ranging implications: “It could have a chilling effect on anyone wanting to express their First Amendment right to free speech.”
Navarro said it also appeared that city officials were “heavy-handed” in handling Harris’ case. In many cases, protesters, including two who were with Harris, are cited by police and charges never are filed, Navarro said.
“In the future, I hope the city becomes more accommodating to the public’s right to free speech,” Navarro said.
The Fresno City Attorney’s Office said in a statement that the city would not appeal the judge’s decision.
Police Chief Jerry Dyer said he believed the dismissal was appropriate.
“Floyd and I communicate frequently on planned protests and there have been no concerns since the initial violation,” Dyer said. He added: “In spite of what people may think, Floyd and I actually get along very well. We may be on different sides of the issue from time to time, but we have a mutual respect for one another.”
For more than two decades, Harris has been a harsh critic of the police.
At one protest in August 2015, Harris led a group of 50 people, including children, to protest racial profiling and police brutality. At the protest, he mocked police to a Bee reporter: “They (Fresno police) are doing this ‘community policing,’ where they give our kids hot dogs and bring them bounce houses. And then when those kids turn 15, they shoot them in the back.”
Harris’ case was unusual because he was prosecuted by the City Attorney’s Office – not the District Attorney’s Office. Harris received notification of the charges through the mail, his lawyer said.
He got in trouble with the law again on Aug. 10, 2015, at a downtown Black Lives Matter demonstration.
About 50 protesters declaring “Fresno is Ferguson” blocked Tulare Street at O Street to mark the one-year anniversary of the deadly police shooting of Michael Brown in the Missouri city, which sparked nationwide protests. A grand jury in Missouri later exonerated the officer who shot Brown.
After several near-hits between demonstrators and frustrated motorists, Fresno police routed traffic around the blockade.
When Harris was charged with two misdemeanors, Dyer said Harris had been organizing anti-police brutality demonstrations without permits since December 2014.
During the demonstrations, Harris uses a bullhorn to encourage protesters to get into the street to impede traffic, putting their lives at risk, the chief said. To ensure no one was hurt, police diverted traffic, including those vehicles responding to emergencies, Dyer said.
When things happen, there’s no time to get a permit. Dr. King didn’t always have a permit.
The Rev. Floyd Harris Jr.
At one protest on Dec. 20, 2014, Harris encouraged 50 to 100 demonstrators to go into the intersection at Kings Canyon Road and Chestnut Avenue. He later told the protesters to block the entrance to Walmart during the Christmas rush, Dyer said. About 20 officers were called to divert traffic. There were no confrontations and no one was given a ticket.
A week later, Harris, armed with a bullhorn, urged 50 to 75 people to disrupt traffic on Blackstone Avenue near Nees Avenue in north Fresno, Dyer said. Again, 20 officers were called to the area to divert traffic and ensure the safety of the public, the chief said.
The protest on Blackstone sparked 911 calls and complaints to police and City Hall, Dyer said. Residents wanted to know how protesters could block traffic without getting into trouble, the chief said.
After consulting with the City Attorney’s Office, Dyer said, Harris and other key protest leaders were sent letters. In the letter, they were told they have a right to protest, but they had to do so in a legal manner, Dyer said. If they failed to comply, they would be arrested, the letter stated.
The letter offered Harris and other protest leaders the opportunity to meet with police and learn how to get a city permit so they could exercise their right to free speech. But none of them accepted the offer, the chief said.
Navarro said Tuesday that Harris never received the letter because it was sent to the wrong address.
Harris said Tuesday that he doesn’t have a beef with Dyer. “We’re cool. There’s no hatred,” he said, noting that he and the chief greeted each other and shook hands Tuesday at a community meeting. He said it was appropriate that his case was dismissed a day after the nation celebrated the birthday of slain civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Harris said he will continue to protest with or without a permit.
“When things happen, there’s no time to get a permit,” he said. “Dr. King didn’t always have a permit.”