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Judge denies request to remove San Diego County DA's Office from protest prosecution

Pro-Trump protesters gather at Mission Boulevard in Pacific Beach, San Diego at a demonstration on Jan. 9, 2021.
Matthew Bowler
Pro-Trump protesters gather at Mission Boulevard in Pacific Beach, San Diego at a demonstration on Jan. 9, 2021.

On Friday, a judge denied a request from defense attorneys to remove the San Diego County District Attorney's Office from the prosecution of a group of anti-fascists charged in connection with a 2021 Pacific Beach protest that broke out into brawls.

In a recent court filing, Curtis Briggs, who represents one of the people charged in connection with the protest, argued that San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan's office showed bias by prosecuting only anti-fascists who attended the Jan. 9, 2021, "Patriot March" protest, and not those who attended the event in support of then President Donald Trump.

Briggs said that, during Stephan's campaign for District Attorney in 2018, antifa was represented in her campaign materials "as an 'attack' on public safety." Stephan's campaign website featured a picture of billionaire George Soros — who had donated to her opponent — in front of a backdrop of antifa marchers with the title "Anti-Law Enforcement $$$ is coming to San Diego."


The attorney also said Stephan's office had a history of declining to prosecute members of far-right organizations who commit violence.

In its own filing, the District Attorney's Office responded by listing a number of high-profile hate crime prosecutions carried out in San Diego County while Stephan headed the office.

Briggs, arguing that officewide bias would prevent his client from receiving a fair trial, sought to have the California Attorney General's Office take up the case instead and was joined in his motion during a Friday court hearing by attorneys representing some of the other defendants charged in the case.

During the hearing, Briggs played various video clips from Jan. 9, which he said showed Pro-Trump supporters engaging in criminal conduct, yet none were prosecuted.

The attorney also said the grand jury that indicted the defendants was deliberately not shown certain evidence that could have incriminated Pro- Trump protest attendees.


Prosecutors from both the D.A.'s Office and the Attorney General's Office argued that Briggs had not shown that there was any conflict of interest that could warrant disqualifying the District Attorney's Office from the case.

Deputy Attorney General Britton Lacy said Briggs' motion was based on "unfounded assertions" that there was a connection between Stephan's campaign statements and the protest case.

"There is no factual basis demonstrating that what happened five years ago has any impact or dictated the charging decisions here," Lacy said.

San Diego Superior Court Judge Daniel Goldstein denied Briggs' request at the conclusion of the hearing.

In a statement issued after the hearing, District Attorney's spokesman Steve Walker said: "As noted in our court filings, the District Attorney's record of increased hate crime prosecutions and protecting the most vulnerable in San Diego County is clear, as well as her commitment to protecting our community from violence no matter what the source is of such crimes. The District Attorney's Office stands ready to move forward with the pursuit of fair and equal justice in this serious assault case."

Of the 11 people originally charged, four have cases that remain pending and are set to go to trial next year. Others have pleaded guilty and some have been sentenced.

After denying the disqualification motion, Goldstein expressed concerns about the political atmosphere that could hang over the eventual trial, should it begin as expected in the spring, during the presidential primary elections.

The judge said should conditions during the trial mirror anything similar to what occurred on Jan. 9, it could have a dramatic effect on jurors and add "tension outside the courtroom."

As such, Goldstein urged the attorneys to consider settling the case through plea offers.

"I caution everybody about the environment and the times that we're going to be trying this case in. If we're picking a jury in March, maybe April, it's going to be at the heat of the political season," Goldstein said.

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