SAN FRANCISCO — A California court on Wednesday dismissed 14 of 15 criminal charges against an undercover journalist behind the video exposé of Planned Parenthood’s role in the fetal tissue trade.
“This is a huge victory to have 14 criminal counts dismissed,” Mat Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, which defended Sandra Merritt in court as she faced 15 felony charges. One charge of conspiracy to invade privacy has still not been dismissed.
“We will now turn our attention to dismissing the final count,” Staver continued. “Sandra Merritt did nothing wrong. The complaint by the California attorney general is unprecedented and frankly will threaten every journalist who provides valuable information to the public.”
In March, California Attorney General Xavier Beccerra charged Merritt and her colleague David Daleiden with 14 criminal counts of recording others without their consent in a confidential conversation and one count of conspiracy to invade privacy.
Merritt and Daleiden were undercover journalists at the Center for Medical Progress, a group that seeks to expose the role of Planned Parenthood clinics and tissue harvesters in the trade of fetal tissue of aborted babies. The group began releasing videos in July of 2015 that were undercover video recordings of conversations with Planned Parenthood officials.
CMP alleged that Planned Parenthood clinics illegally broke the law by profiting off of the transfer of fetal tissue to harvesters. Federal law does allow for reasonable compensation for fetal tissue in cases where it is procured for medical research purposes. The compensation cannot be for “valuable consideration,” but may cover operating expenses like storage and transfer costs.
The recorded conversations Merritt and Daleiden had took place as they posed as representatives of tissue-procurement company BioMax, seeking to possibly partner with Planned Parenthood clinics and other representatives in the abortion industry to obtain body parts of aborted babies.
In the criminal complaint against Merritt and Daleiden, Beccerra alleged that both persons had recorded confidential conversations without the consent of other parties involved. Each of the 14 counts involved a separate conversation that allegedly took place.
Eight of the charges had to do with secretly recorded conversations with attendees at a National Abortion Federation conference in San Francisco. Other conversations with Planned Parenthood officials and tissue-procurement representatives were recorded at other times.
California is a “two-party consent” state, which means that both parties of a conversation, where it is expected to be private and confidential, must agree to it being recorded.
An affidavit from a California peace officer claimed that, according to accounts from multiple persons to whom Daleiden and Merritt allegedly talked, they recorded conversations that were believed to be confidential by the other party.
Liberty Counsel, on the other hand, said that the “the videos produced by Merritt and Daleiden exposed unethical and potentially illegal conduct by Planned Parenthood, and Planned Parenthood itself has admitted, under oath, that the recorded conversations took place in ‘non-confidential’ and public venues,” such as restaurants.
Beccerra also charged Daleiden with conspiracy to invade privacy, alleging that Daleiden used a password from a former employee at the tissue procurement company StemExpress, accessed the company’s email system and took documents.
The affadavit also alleged that Daleiden and Merritt set up a tissue-procurement company of their own — BioMax Procurement Services, LLC — and used false names to “pose” as representatives of the company and to be admitted to the National Abortion Federation conference in San Francisco, “where they secretly video recorded conference speakers, vendors and attendees.”
On Wednesday, the San Francisco Superior Court dismissed the 14 recording charges, but the charge for conspiracy to invade privacy has not yet been dropped.
Beccerra, a former Democratic congressman, had previously received small donations from Planned Parenthood as a candidate for Congress amounting to around $6,000 over the last 20 years, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
“Sandra did not break any law, and the criminal complaint against her is legally deficient, vague and full of inconsistencies,” stated Horatio Mihet, Liberty Counsel’s vice president of legal affairs and chief litigation counsel.
“No other citizen journalist or organization has ever been charged with a crime for undercover recordings,” he added.
After Center for Medical Progress began releasing its recorded conversations with officials at Planned Parenthood and tissue-procurement companies, Congress and several states launched investigations into Planned Parenthood to find out whether it broke the law in the fetal-tissue trade.
A final report from a House select investigative panel released in January detailed various abuses in the abortion industry in the fetal body-parts trade.
Consent forms required by law were not obtained from mothers to have the fetal tissue of their aborted children used for research. Private medical information may have been shared between abortion facilities and tissue-procurement companies in a violation of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996.
In another case, the University of New Mexico established a possibly illegal relationship with a local abortion facility, where students and fellows performed abortions and the abortionists were reportedly granted “volunteer faculty” status at the university, where they received benefits like insurance coverage and access to university facilities.