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UC seeks civil penalties against tree protesters

The 16 tried to block a sports facility planned for a grove at Berkeley.

September 23, 2008|Richard C. Paddock | Times Staff Writer

The University of California is seeking maximum civil penalties against 16 people who took part in a 21-month tree-sitting protest at UC Berkeley in the hope of deterring similar demonstrations in the future, UC officials said Monday.

The protesters, including the final four who were removed from a 90-foot redwood earlier this month, face fines of $1,000 each and potential attorneys' fees ranging from $3,000 to $10,000, said Michael Goldstein, a UC attorney.

"We are seeking the maximum penalty against all of them," Goldstein said. "We want to make it very clear to them and anyone else who is contemplating this kind of action that we are not going to tolerate it."

In the civil action, the protesters are accused of violating a judge's order to come down from the trees. Penalties levied in civil court will be in addition to any fines or jail time they may face in criminal court, where many of them also are being prosecuted.

The protesters had sought to keep the university from removing 43 trees, many of them 85-year-old oaks, to make way for a training facility for student athletes. UC Berkeley officials say the protest cost the campus $1.5 million in increased security and police costs.

In a separate action, protest leader Zachary Running Wolf pleaded guilty to one count of possessing psychedelic mushrooms and will spend 30 days in jail under an agreement worked out with prosecutors, said Tony Serra, his attorney. Prosecutors agreed to drop charges of vandalism and obstructing a police officer that stemmed from the protest, he said.

Serra, who has long defended radical activists, criticized UC for pursuing civil claims against the tree-sitters.

"Shame on you, Berkeley," said Serra, who attended law school there. "Going after monetary damages from young, idealistic people who are doing this at great sacrifice is really sadistic."

Of the 16 protesters, five were found in contempt in August and ordered to pay $1,000 each, including two who were sentenced to five days in jail. The cases of the remaining 11 and the question of attorneys' fees for all 16 will be heard in coming months.

"They created an enormous health and safety risk out there and it took the diversion of precious campus resources to try to keep the problem to a minimum," Goldstein said. "It's sending a message that we take this very seriously and we are not going to allow it."

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richard.paddock@latimes.com

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