Four members of Occupy Erie said they gathered in a downtown Erie bank on Feb. 29 to educate people, not to scare them.
An Erie district judge who heard their arguments in two summary trials found them not guilty of trespass charges in the incident, citing state law that he said did not fit the crime.
The four -- Neil J. Woods, 60, of Erie; Cynthia L. Purvis, 60, of Erie; Richard Shubert, 57, of Erie; and Elspeth K. Koehle, 35, of Findley Lake, N.Y -- were each charged by Erie police with a summary count of simple trespass after police accused them of failing to leave the lobby of the PNC Bank branch at 901 State St. when told to do so.
The protesters said they gathered in the bank's lobby to raise awareness about the American Legislative Exchange Council and PNC's affiliation with it.
Police said the four caused a disturbance by releasing balloons in the lobby and by reading statements in loud voices. They refused to leave when asked by bank employees and then by city police officers who were called to the branch, said Erie police Patrolman Daniel Shields, who presented the police case.
Woods, Purvis and Shubert had their summary trials on March 20. Koehle had her hearing Tuesday afternoon.
Lawyer Sanford Kelson, of Conneaut Lake, argued at both hearings that the charges should be dismissed. The necessary elements in convicting them of the charges are that the protesters threatened and terrorized bank employees and customers, and no proof of that was presented during the trials, Kelson said.
Shields argued that someone felt threatened enough to call police to the bank.
Erie 2nd Ward District Judge Paul Urbaniak, who presided over the cases, said the allegations better fit the act of defiant trespassing, a misdemeanor.
Urbaniak told police he believes they charged the protesters the way they did to "give a break to these folks." But they weren't charged correctly, he said.
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