USF protesters plead not guilty to charges of battery against police

Hillsborough prosecutors have filed formal charges against a group of people arrested after a March protest that resulted in a physical altercation with police on the University of South Florida’s Tampa campus.

The five pleaded not guilty Wednesday to charges that now include battery on a law enforcement officer, resisting arrest without violence and disrupting a school or campus function. Prosecutors brought additional charges against three of the five in the weeks since their arrests. Battery on a law enforcement officer is a felony, which carries up to five years in prison, and three have been charged with two counts of this. Before their arraignment Wednesday morning, a small group of supporters gathered outside the Hillsborough County courthouse calling for “justice for the Tampa 5.”

On March 6, the students marched to the ground floor of the building where USF president Rhea Law works. They demanded to meet with her and for her to oppose the bill that Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law this week that would prohibit spending on diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. From there, versions of the encounter diverge.

Police alleged that the protesters initiated an altercation and that one officer was pushed to the ground. A university review of the incident stated that some meeting in the building were alarmed by the noise and activated an active shooter protocol. Protesters rejected those assertions and alleged they were abused by officers who hit, shoved and groped them.

On that day, Chrisley Carpio, Gia Davila, Laura Rodriguez and Jeanie Kida were arrested. Last month, charges were added for an additional student, Lauren Pineiro. Since then, the university issued their review of the incident, which largely sided with the police account of the incident, but recommended more training for police and better awareness of campus policies for students.

Carpio, a USF employee, was fired from her job after being placed on administrative leave. Kida, a student, was trespassed from campus with the exception of being able to attend classes until next December and asked to write a 6,000-word essay, according to a member of Tampa Bay Students for a Democratic Society. Pineiro and Davila were allowed to graduate, but must write six-page essays on peaceful assemblies and attend workshops.

Outside the courthouse, Michelle Lambo, the lawyer for the protesters, called on USF chief of police Chris Daniel to be fired. She said he “molested and assaulted” Davila. He sat on her legs, she said, and pulled out his phone to “take a photograph as a trophy.”

“We will be subpoenaing all his cell phone records to see what exactly he was doing while he was sitting on top of her with his phone,” she said. “This is unprofessional and he needs to be fired immediately.”

Case law, she said, allows people to use force in defending themselves from law enforcement officers if the police use excessive force.

“That should be the case so we don’t end up with another situation like George Floyd,” she said.

USF’s review said officers did not use excessive force.

The group rallying outside called on the state attorney’s office to drop the charges against the protesters.

The group chanted “down with DeSantis” as the governor spoke in Tampa about 15 minutes away.

While USF’s review concluded that the protesters were not arrested based on the content of their protest but the way in which they did it, they group said the charges were part of a broader pattern of state intimidation. Three people were arrested at an anti-abortion protest in Gainesville and 11 were arrested in Tallahassee last month.

But the protesters said they would not be intimidated.

“We are not guilty and we are not sorry,” Rodriguez said. “We have the people and the truth on our side.”

Their next court appearance is set for July 12.

Times staff writer Dan Sullivan contributed to this report. Divya Kumar covers higher education for the Tampa Bay Times, in partnership with Open Campus.