Judge dismisses most charges against pro-life activists in Planned Parenthood sting

A Superior Court judge in California has dismissed 14 of 15 charges against pro-life activists David Daleiden and Sandra Merritt for violating the state's privacy laws regarding recording people without their consent.

As The Weekly Standard's Charlotte Allen notes, the state's attorney general, former congressman Xavier Becerra, conducted what seemed to her "more persecution than prosecution."  The activists secretly recorded Planned Parenthood officials discussing the trafficking of human body parts and joking about how rich they were going to get.

The judge cited several problems with the charges:

California law forbids the recording of conversations without the consent of all parties involved, so Becerra, a former Democratic congressman from Los Angeles, assigned a separate criminal count to each of 14 secretly recorded conversations that Deleiden [sic] and Merritt, posing as tissue-procurers themselves, had had with high-level Planned Parenthood employees at restaurants, abortion conventions, and other venues during 2013 and 2014, and also with the CEO of StemExpress, a Placerville, California, tissue supply firm, that had partnered at the time with some of Planned Parenthood's Northern California clinics to retrieve fetal body parts onsite. For the statute in question, California Penal Code Section 632, prosecutorial discretion allows charges to be brought as either felonies or misdemeanors. Becerra went the felony route. His aim seemed to be to put Daleiden and Merritt behind bars for as long as legally possible; each separate felony conviction for violating Section 632 could entail a year in state prison plus a hefty fine.

There were always legal issues that could have stood in the way of automatic Section 632 convictions for the pair: How much expectation of privacy – an essential element of a violation of the anti-recording law – did the alleged victims really have in the public places where the conversations occurred, for example. But what really killed the greater part of Becerra's case, at least for now, was his office's insistence on keeping secret such key information as the names of the alleged Planned Parenthood victims. Superior Court Judge Christopher Hite ruled that those 14 charges were simply legally insufficient. "The complaint did not provide Merritt with the minimum notice required by the Constitution and California law as to what she supposedly did wrong, so that she can mount a proper and vigorous defense," her lawyer, Mat Staver of LibertyCounsel said. "The complaint was also vague and full of inconsistencies."

Hite gave Becerra's office until mid-July to file a revised and more detailed complaint, and it will be interesting to see whether the attorney general's obvious solicitude for the delicate feelings of Planned Parenthood officials will outweigh his obvious desire to throw the book at Daleiden and Merritt. There is also that 15th count: a conspiracy charge against the pair stemming from their use of a former StemExpress employee's password to log into StemExpress's email account so as to learn the ins and out of fetal organ procurement.

The bottom line is that the activists didn't do anything other undercover journalists haven't done.  Allen cites the actions of animal rights activists who create fake IDs and sneak on to farms and into circuses to report on suspected abuses of animals.

The prosecution of the activists is so blatantly political that you have to wonder if Becerra isn't conducting a witch hunt to intimidate other activists from conducting undercover investigations into Planned Parenthood and other abortion rights groups.  He wouldn't prosecute reporters and producers for 60 Minutes for going undercover to expose corruption.  So why pro-life activists?

Certainly, Planned Parenthood is demonstrating its political clout in egging on the A.G. in his prosecution.  But nobody can erase what is on those recordings.  The sick feeling decent people get – whether pro- or anti-abortion – in watching those videos and the gleeful conversations about ripping up babies for body parts from Planned Parenthood officials is ample reason to deny the organization federal funds. 

A Superior Court judge in California has dismissed 14 of 15 charges against pro-life activists David Daleiden and Sandra Merritt for violating the state's privacy laws regarding recording people without their consent.

As The Weekly Standard's Charlotte Allen notes, the state's attorney general, former congressman Xavier Becerra, conducted what seemed to her "more persecution than prosecution."  The activists secretly recorded Planned Parenthood officials discussing the trafficking of human body parts and joking about how rich they were going to get.

The judge cited several problems with the charges:

California law forbids the recording of conversations without the consent of all parties involved, so Becerra, a former Democratic congressman from Los Angeles, assigned a separate criminal count to each of 14 secretly recorded conversations that Deleiden [sic] and Merritt, posing as tissue-procurers themselves, had had with high-level Planned Parenthood employees at restaurants, abortion conventions, and other venues during 2013 and 2014, and also with the CEO of StemExpress, a Placerville, California, tissue supply firm, that had partnered at the time with some of Planned Parenthood's Northern California clinics to retrieve fetal body parts onsite. For the statute in question, California Penal Code Section 632, prosecutorial discretion allows charges to be brought as either felonies or misdemeanors. Becerra went the felony route. His aim seemed to be to put Daleiden and Merritt behind bars for as long as legally possible; each separate felony conviction for violating Section 632 could entail a year in state prison plus a hefty fine.

There were always legal issues that could have stood in the way of automatic Section 632 convictions for the pair: How much expectation of privacy – an essential element of a violation of the anti-recording law – did the alleged victims really have in the public places where the conversations occurred, for example. But what really killed the greater part of Becerra's case, at least for now, was his office's insistence on keeping secret such key information as the names of the alleged Planned Parenthood victims. Superior Court Judge Christopher Hite ruled that those 14 charges were simply legally insufficient. "The complaint did not provide Merritt with the minimum notice required by the Constitution and California law as to what she supposedly did wrong, so that she can mount a proper and vigorous defense," her lawyer, Mat Staver of LibertyCounsel said. "The complaint was also vague and full of inconsistencies."

Hite gave Becerra's office until mid-July to file a revised and more detailed complaint, and it will be interesting to see whether the attorney general's obvious solicitude for the delicate feelings of Planned Parenthood officials will outweigh his obvious desire to throw the book at Daleiden and Merritt. There is also that 15th count: a conspiracy charge against the pair stemming from their use of a former StemExpress employee's password to log into StemExpress's email account so as to learn the ins and out of fetal organ procurement.

The bottom line is that the activists didn't do anything other undercover journalists haven't done.  Allen cites the actions of animal rights activists who create fake IDs and sneak on to farms and into circuses to report on suspected abuses of animals.

The prosecution of the activists is so blatantly political that you have to wonder if Becerra isn't conducting a witch hunt to intimidate other activists from conducting undercover investigations into Planned Parenthood and other abortion rights groups.  He wouldn't prosecute reporters and producers for 60 Minutes for going undercover to expose corruption.  So why pro-life activists?

Certainly, Planned Parenthood is demonstrating its political clout in egging on the A.G. in his prosecution.  But nobody can erase what is on those recordings.  The sick feeling decent people get – whether pro- or anti-abortion – in watching those videos and the gleeful conversations about ripping up babies for body parts from Planned Parenthood officials is ample reason to deny the organization federal funds. 

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