Seventeen members of the Make UT Sweatshop-Free Coalition went before a Travis County judge Friday for criminal trespass, and each member took a plea deal to have the charges reduced and eventually removed from their record.
The members were charged in April after holding a sit-in in UT President William Powers Jr.’s office with the goal of convincing UT to join the Worker Rights Consortium, an organization that monitors the working conditions of factory workers internationally. UT joined the consortium in July. The 17 members had to choose Friday between two plea options the County Attorney offered this summer.
Virginia Raymond, attorney for 16 of the charged students, said 15 chose plea option one, which immediately dismissed the charges and forced the students to sign an admission of guilt to a class B misdemeanor criminal trespass charge. Those students will now have to complete 20 hours of community service and not be arrested for anything above a class C traffic ticket misdemeanor during a subsequent six-month period. If successful in meeting those conditions, the students can then apply for expungement of the charge.
Raymond said two students chose plea option two, which deferred the charge to a class C misdemeanor of failure to obey a lawful order. The students choosing this option had to pay $205.10 in fines and court costs. They also must not be arrested for the next three months. If successful in meeting those conditions, the students can apply for expungement of the charge following the three-month period.
If the students fail to meet the terms of their respective pleas, the county can re-file the case and pursue the original criminal trespass charges. In this case, criminal trespass is considered a class B misdemeanor, which comes with a maximum punishment of 180 days in jail, a $2,000 fine and a permanent criminal record.
Raymond said for logistical reasons, one of the students who was arrested was not able to attend court Friday, but is planning on choosing plea option one.
Raymond said she saw the trial as only a minor point in the larger effort UT has made to better protect the rights of workers who make their apparel.
“There is no big drama or story in these minor legal maneuvers,” she said. “The criminal charges are an unpleasant but insignificant aspect of the big picture. The big, wonderful story is that UT-Austin is part of the Worker Rights Consortium.”
Plan II sophomore Bianca Hinz-Foley said student efforts to convince UT’s administration to join the Worker Rights Consortium began in 1999. They have consisted of dozens of efforts and protests, including dressing up in only cardboard, lying out in front of the tower and picketing in front of the University Co-op.
Lucy Griswold, coalition spokesperson and arrested student, said she took plea option one because there were no fines involved, something that was a deciding factor for many of the coalition’s members.
Jessica Villarreal, geography senior and arrested student, said she chose plea option two because it provided for a faster expungement of the charges and required no community service.
“It was more cut and dry,” she said.
Faculty representatives of the coalition submitted a petition to Powers Wednesday with more than 400 student signatures asking him to drop the charges against the students. Powers took no action.
Villarreal said she is disappointed in Powers’ decision not to advocate on the student’s behalf before the trial, but she can see why the University took the situation seriously.
“I can understand it from the administration’s point,” she said. “They want to maintain their point of power. They don’t want to show students, ‘If you all want to protest and occupy our office, we are going to just slap you on the wrist and call it a day.’”
Griswold said this marks an end to the coalition’s involvement with the Worker Rights Consortium issue.
“We’re going to close the door basically with this Worker Rights Consortium issue and decide what we’re going to do next,” she said. “We want to get some new campaigns going, and getting the charges dropped won’t be a priority.”
Printed on Monday, September 17, 2012 as: Students take plea deal, University remains silent