Anti-abortion activists lose bid to dismiss California privacy case

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Two anti-abortion activists charged with felony eavesdropping for secretly filming abortion providers in California lost their bid for dismissal of the case on Wednesday, but the judge ordered prosecutors to amend a criminal complaint he deemed too vague.

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San Francisco County Superior Court Judge Christopher Hite gave the state attorney general’s office until mid-July to file a revised complaint that describes the accusations in greater detail, including specific dates, alleged victims and circumstances.

Hite ruled the identities of alleged victims would remain under court seal and admonished lawyers to keep that information confidential, after the defense team for one defendant, David Daleiden, was found to have posted videos and other identifying material online.

The judge declined to take disciplinary action against Daleiden’s lawyers, as urged by prosecutors, and also denied the defense’s request to toss out the case.

Daleiden, 28, and Sandra Merritt, 64, appeared in court on Wednesday, but they are not expected to enter a plea until the arraignment on July 17, the deadline set for the amended complaint.

Each is charged with conspiracy and 14 counts of invasion of privacy for creating false identities as representatives of a fetal-tissue procurement company to infiltrate a 2014 National Abortion Federation meeting, then videotaping conference participants and others without their consent.

Daleiden and Merritt have cast themselves as targets of a politically motivated prosecution for their roles in “sting” operations that exposed Planned Parenthood and related groups to unwelcome scrutiny by conservatives in Congress during the run-up to the 2016 elections.

Defense lawyers say Daleiden and Merritt acted as “citizen journalists” employing well-worn undercover tactics of the news media.

Prosecutors counter that Daleiden and Merritt engaged in computer hacking and criminal fraud to create false IDs and a sham corporate entity to gain access to private meetings - behavior that bona fide journalists would avoid as unethical.

Daleiden became an anti-abortion movement hero in 2015 after his group, the Center for Medical Progress, circulated videos purporting to show Planned Parenthood officials trying to profit from the sale of aborted fetal tissue in violation of federal law.

The organization said Daleiden’s heavily edited videos distorted its lawful and ethical practice of seeking reimbursement only to cover costs associated with such donations.

Daleiden and Merritt were indicted in January 2016 for using illegal government IDs to covertly film a Planned Parenthood facility in Texas, but that case was dropped.

Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Bill Trott and Leslie Adler