View Original Notice ? Coronavirus: Woman who refused to wear mask in Costa Mesa grocery store goes on trial
A maskless woman accused of refusing to leave a Costa Mesa grocery store has become the only person to go on trial in Orange County after allegedly refusing to follow face-covering mandates at local businesses during the Coronavirus pandemic.
A jury will soon decide whether Marianne Campbell Smith is guilty of a pair of misdemeanor charges, including trespassing and obstructing a business or customers, for allegedly refusing to leave busy Mother’s Market near the Triangle Square during an anti-mask protest on Aug. 15, 2020.
A second woman who entered the store with Smith – Jennifer Marie Sterling – headed off a jury trial by taking a plea deal requiring her to plead no contest to an infraction for refusing to leave when ordered by a police officer upon an owner’s request. She received a suspended sentence rather than any time behind bars, court records show.
The criminal case is an outlier for Orange County police and prosecutors, who largely focused on education and outreach rather than arrests and criminal charges when it came to mask mandates and other coronavirus restrictions.
During the pandemic, only one local business owner – the operator of a Costa Mesa bar – was charged with flouting COVID limits. And with the exception of Smith and Sterling, no other arrests or charges tied to covid-related business mandates were reported.
Questioning by Smith’s attorney during her trial raised the possibility that Smith had health issues that prevented her from wearing a mask. That explanation was also cited by her online supporters.
During her trial this week in a Westminster courtroom, Smith wore a plastic face shield, as local courts continue to require all visitors and employees to wear face coverings. Around a dozen of Smith’s supporters watched from the courtroom gallery.
According to testimony, a bustling shopping day at the high-traffic grocery store was disrupted by a planned protest that forced employees to close the market’s main doors, minutes after Smith, Sterling and another woman walked into the business without masks.
The store manager at the time, Eric Katz, testified that he stepped in front of Smith and the other women to prevent them from entering the market. Katz described the women as pushing past him, though he acknowledged they did not make physical contact with store employees.
Katz testified that he and a security guard hired to help with the protest followed Smith, Sterling and the other woman around the store – through the produce and bread sections – as he told them at least five times that they needed to either put a face covering on or leave. The manager said he gave them the option of using an online service such as Instacart, or simply providing a list of groceries employees could bring out to them.
“She discussed doing it for her freedom,” Katz said of why Smith told him she wasn’t wearing a mask.
Smith – who was carrying a sign reading, “Healthy people do not wear masks” and Sterling – who was wearing a skirt with “Trump” written on it – eventually walked up to the checkout line, where Smith tried to pay for a container of food and a bag of chips. When employees refused to ring her up, Smith left $5 near the register, according to the surveillance footage.
At the same time, a group of around two dozen protestors had moved from the parking lot to the entrance to the market, leading employees to close the main door and helping those inside the store exit through the back. Surveillance footage showed the group brandishing signs and flags reading “Trump 2020,” “Keep America Great,” and “Keep your politics off our faces.”
Costa Mesa Officer Robert Hanson testified that he was one of numerous officers who were stationed near the protest – a group that included SWAT team members. Hanson and a group of officers entered the market and arrested Smith and Sterling. The third woman, who has not been named during the trial, apparently left the market before police arrived.
Hanson described the protestors yelling “shame, shame, shame” and comparing the police to Nazis as they brought Smith and Sterling out of the market.
During an interview with police played in court, Smith said it was discrimination not to let her in the store without a mask, and said she had the right to shop at the market. Under cross-examination by Smith’s attorney – Frederick Fascenelli – the officer agreed that Smith told them, “I can’t wear a mask,” and acknowledged that they didn’t follow up by asking her why.
The defense attorney during his questioning of the store manager and the officer repeatedly indicated that Smith had a card indicating that she had some sort of medical condition. Fascenelli also repeatedly questioned the store manager about local health orders that he said seemed to allow people people with health conditions to avoid wearing masks.
The manager said in court that the market’s mask policy was handed down from their corporate leaders based on health guidance at the state, local and federal levels that often shifted during the pandemic.
Smith told the judge on Tuesday that she does not plan to testify. Closing arguments in the trial are expected to take place on Wednesday.