SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — Anti-abortion activists and self-styled citizen journalists David Daleiden and Sandra Merritt pleaded not guilty Friday to nine counts of criminal eavesdropping and invasion of privacy stemming from an undercover reporting project designed to discredit Planned Parenthood.
Posing as human tissue procurers using fake names and IDs, Daleiden and Merritt gained entrance to abortion industry conferences throughout 2013 and 2014 as exhibitors for the phony company BioMax Procurement Services, where they secretly recorded conversations that they later posted online.
Daleiden and Merritt also made recordings of meetings with abortion providers and stem cell procurers at restaurants in Los Angeles and El Dorado counties.
After a three-week preliminary hearing in September last year, San Francisco Superior Court Judge Christopher Hite dismissed four of the charges stemming from the restaurant meetings, which took place at CRAFT LA and Bistro 33 in El Dorado Hills.
In a December order, Hite said he found the four people recorded there “didn’t have an objectively responsible expectation that their conversations would not be overheard.”
Hite also dismissed one charge resulting from a recording made in an elevator at the St. Francis Hotel.
But he allowed two counts based on one meeting with two Planned Parenthood doctors at AKA Bistro in Pasadena to go forward, finding “sufficient evidence of a more private setting.”
Under California Penal Code, a conviction on a single count of eavesdropping on or recording confidential communications carries a fine of up to $2,500, and a year in either county jail or state prison or both.
The criminal proceeding was delayed by a lengthy federal civil trial last October which Planned Parenthood claimed it was harmed by Merritt, Daleiden, his anti-abortion group the Center for Medical Progress, and fellow abortion opponents Albin Rhomberg and Troy Newman.
A jury awarded Planned Parenthood more than $2 million in punitive and compensatory damages in November.
Daleiden and Merritt’s lawyers said they planned to get more counts dismissed as the case heads to trial, specifically the ones centered around the manufacture of the fake driver’s licenses, as they believe that charge was filed too late by the Attorney General’s office.
“We are confident it is time-barred,” said Merritt’s lawyer Horatio Mihet.
As for the two other counts, Mihet said they were based on a recording made of two people at the same time, so prosecutors should not be able to charge Daleiden and Merritt twice for one recording.
Their lawyers have also moved to have another judge review Hite’s ruling under Penal Code § 995.
Predicting a long slog through the legal system, Mihet said he doubts Daleiden and Merritt will face a jury this year.
“If there is a trial, I expect it will be late in the year at the earliest,” he said, adding, “We will tirelessly pursue every avenue to obtain a dismissal.”
Daleiden declined to comment at the courthouse, but later emailed a statement painting the case as an unjust attack on his First Amendment rights.
“This case is an ill-conceived political favor for Planned Parenthood, and it is going nowhere fast. The record continues to show that every recording was made in situations where third parties could overhear, and made for the purpose of gathering evidence of criminality,” he said.
He added, “The Attorney General’s belated attempt to add charges clearly barred by the statute of limitations is just one more example of the political motives behind this unjust prosecution. California should return to common sense equality and fairness under the law and dismiss this bogus case.”