USF protesters plead not guilty at arraignment

The defendants – Chrisley Carpio, Jeanie Kida, Lauren Pineiro, Laura Rodriguez and Gia Davila – waived their right to a speedy trial at Wednesday’s arraignment in the 13th Judicial Circuit Court. ORACLE PHOTO/JUSTIN SEECHARAN

The USF protesters arrested on March 6 – self-dubbed the Tampa Bay Five – pleaded not guilty in their arraignment on Wednesday as a rally occurred outside the 13th Judicial Circuit Court of Florida.

Composed of USF employee Chrisley Carpio and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) members Gia Davila, Laura Rodriguez, Jeanie Kida and Lauren Pineiro, the group was arrested after they protested in the Patel Center at the Tampa campus on March 6. 

During the Patel Center protest, the protesters demanded a meeting with President Rhea Law and objected to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ laws and investigations targeting diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) and critical theories. 

Four of the defendants were arrested the same day as the protest while Pineiro was charged last month. The original four were charged with battery on a law enforcement officer, resisting arrest without violence and disrupting an educational institution. Pineiro was only charged with disrupting an educational institution at the time of her arrest, according to a Hillsborough County arrest report.

Michelle Lambo, who is representing all five of the protesters, told the crowd that the case law is “clear.” If law enforcement uses excessive force, individuals are allowed to defend themselves with force as well, she said. Lambo called for the firing of University Police Department (UPD) Chief Chris Daniel for his role in the group’s arrest and for his alleged groping of one of the protestors. 

“Law enforcement used excessive force on students, on young people in their early 20s and mid 20s, people in a safe space at a university that is protected by state statute as a safe space for the right to assemble and the right for free speech. Justice will prevail,” Lambo said.

In the arraignment, the defendants also waived their right to a speedy trial. This way, the defendants and their attorney have sufficient time to review all the videos and photos of the altercation, according to Lambo.

Lambo said she will also be subpoenaing Daniels’ phone records for the case as he allegedly took a photo while restraining one of the protestors. 

Around 20 fellow SDS and Tampa Bay Action Committee members showed their support with chants and signs as the group waited outside the courthouse for the arraignment. However, only Carpio, Rodriguez and Pineiro – whose arraignment was combined with the original four despite her charges being filed at a later time – were present at the courthouse. 

The other members of the group were out of town, according to Carpio. They will not face any consequences for not attending, as defendants with an attorney can waive their client’s arraignment by filing a written plea of guilty or not guilty prior to the arraignment, according to Hornsby Law Firm

Supporters wore shirts saying “Justice for the Tampa Bay 4” – what the group called themselves prior to the addition of Pineiro’s charges – and held signs which read “USF Police, shame on you” – the other side of the sign read “Rhea Law, shame on You” – and “Protesting is not a crime.”

As she addressed the crowd, Carpio condemned state attorney’s office prosecutor Justin Diaz and state attorney for the 13th Judicial Court Susan Lopez. She said herself and others in the group were now facing up to 10 years in prison due to an increase in charges after the initial arrest. Though some of the group originally faced four felony counts, now three of the members face eight. 

Following her arrest, Carpio was fired from the university admissions office where she worked, according to a March 29 Oracle article. The remaining members of the groups – two of which graduated this spring semester – are trespassed from campus meaning they will face arrest if they were to come back.  

Rodriguez said the arrest has had negative consequences in her life, such as being fired from her job as a substitute teacher. Once she was arrested, she said rules in her contract regarding criminal records meant she could no longer keep working as a sub. 

“It has ruined my income. My pay is now cut in half because I had to pick up an old job. I can’t apply for other jobs that are of this same equivalent because I now have two felony counts against me. And, as well, as just the emotional strain that this has taken,” Rodriguez said. 

Because of the trespass, Pineiro said she won’t be able to look for a job at the university like she planned and won’t be able to attend her friends’ graduations in the future.

“I can’t go back to the school where I spent many years. I spent a lot of money at the school. So, it’s really just unfortunate,” she said.

The group was also offered a plea deal as a pre-trial intervention, according to Pineiro. If they accepted the deal, the group would’ve had to write a letter of apology to the police officers who allegedly assaulted the group in order for the charges to be dropped. However, Pineiro said the group chose to decline the deal as it would’ve signified admitting to doing something they are not guilty of.

“We’d be apologizing to the people who beat us up, who brutalized us. And ultimately, I knew I couldn’t live with myself by apologizing for something I didn’t do, to apologize to someone who had mentally and physically harmed me,” she said. 

After the altercation in March, the university also performed an investigation accompanied by an action plan composed of recommendations for the UPD. In their investigation, which included reviewing photos and videos of the altercation, USF found that UPD officers did not use unauthorized equipment or behaviors – such as pepper spray or chokeholds – against protestors, according to the report of the investigation

In their recommendations, the report advised UPD to purchase and implement body cameras – an initiative which was already in progress prior to the report, according to a Feb. 13 Oracle article.

The group’s next court appearance will be on July 12 where they will present presiding judge Barbara Twine Thomas with a status update of the case, according to Lambo. A trial date might be set at that time, Lambo said. 

Carpio and her fellow defendants plan to get a message out to the public that they are not guilty of the “bogus charges” filed by the state.

“We view it as an attack on the student movement and on people who want to protest to save our schools. And we are not guilty, and we’re confident that the truth will come out,” she said.