Verdict: Environmentalists guilty in 2014 Palm Beach Gardens protest

A trio of environmental protesters were sentenced to probation, community service and fines Friday after a jury convicted them of resisting arrest and disrupting a school function during a 2014 protest against Briger Forest development in Palm Beach Gardens.

The verdicts against Bailey Riley, Ashley Lyons and Ryan Hartman came almost a year to the day after the members of Everglades Earth First! staged a Nov. 7, 2014 protest of the Kolter Group’s project to build 360 homes on the the Briger property between Hood Road and Donald Ross Road.

It took jurors about a half hour to convict Riley and Lyons of resisting arrest and all three of disruption a school function. Palm Beach County Judge Sheree Cunningham sentenced Riley and Lyons to 12 months of probation and Hartman to six months of probation.

The two women had chained themselves to a disabled van blocking both lanes of Hood Road, which construction workers used to go to the Briger project. Hartman owned the van and had helped disable it.

The protest forced the nearby Meyer Academy, a private schoool on Hood Road, to cancel classes for the day, and blocked access to the adjacent Jewish community center.

Each of the three will have to perform 100 hours of community service and are prohibited from going to the Briger Forest site.

“This prosecution was never about free speech,” prosecutor Hope Baros said after the verdict. “It was about the rule of law and following the rules we all share.”

In closing arguments in the case, Assistant Public Defender Brad Schlesinger, who represented the three along with Assistant Public Defender Katherine Pannella, said the three didn’t know they were blocking access to the school.

Even after the two women found out, they had no way to extricate themselves from the intricate links of PVC pipe, chicken wire and duct tape that was looped through broken windows in the van, chaining them and the van together.

“Is this really the kind of country we want to live in, a country where people don’t have a right to protest?” Schelesinger asked.

Assistant State Attorneys Baros and Louisa Berti said that the three purposely planned to block the road to the school as a “pre-meditated event” to draw media attention to their cause. Baros said the activists had every right to protest, but had no right to break the law.

As for the construction project they sought to halt? Prosecutors said the construction company trucks drove over the sidewalk and around the blockade before they continued their work.

The resisting arrest charges were first degree misdemeanors punishable by up to a year in jail. The school function charge was a second-degree misdemeanor punishable by up to 60 days in jail.

Everglades Earth First! activists after the verdicts said they had plans for another protest Dec 5. Many members of the group and their friends attended the trial. They filled Cunningham’s courtroom for closing arguments Friday, and most of them stayed for the verdict and sentencing.

Baros on Friday said she intended to ask Cunningham to order the protesters to pay the the costs police incurred to move them and the van from the road. Cunningham said she will set a separate hearing to determine whether she’ll do that.

Because Riley is a student in Tampa, she can report to probation by mail, Cunningham ruled. Also, because Riley works part-time, and Lyons doesn’t work at all, Cunningham said she will allow them to pay down court costs of at least $300 by performing community service beyond the 100 hours at a rate of $10 an hour. Hartman, who works, will have to pay, Cunningham ruled.

Afterwards, the activists said their friends’ convictions will only serve to continue their case. Panagioti Tsolkas echoed the sentiments of Schlesinger, who in his closing arguments compared the Everglades Earth First! agenda to the civil rights movement.

“It’s our responsibility to stand up to injustice and whether the law recognizes that or not is secondary,” he said. “We’ve seen that throughout our history.”

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