Photographer's Bullshit Arrest By A Dallas Transit Cop Nets Him A $345,000 Settlement
from the get-out-your-checkbook,-Joe-Public dept
Dallas residents are now going to be $345,000 lighter thanks to the actions of one Dallas Area Rapid Transit cop. (via Reason)
DART officer Stephanie Branch decided the law was on her side when she demanded photographer Avi Adelman stop recording EMS personnel dealing with an apparent overdose. Officer Branch claimed Adelman’s photography violated the medical privacy rights of the person being attended to, saying things about HIPAA (not at all relevant here) and “establishing a perimeter.” Branch was in the wrong. She was violating DART policy by shutting Adelman down and she compounded this error by making twenty-three “false or misleading” statements in her report of the arrest.
Adelman spent 20 hours in jail after being charged with criminal trespassing. That charge was dropped and DART itself apologized to him for the actions of its “rogue” officer. Officer Branch escaped being held liable for violating Adelman’s First Amendment rights as the right to record public employees in public areas wasn’t clearly established in the Fifth Circuit until a year after Adelman’s arrest.
His Fourth Amendment claim moved forward though and Officer Branch appealed the stripping of her qualified immunity on this count. Her appeal was rejected by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which found Branch’s arrest of Adelman unreasonable. As the court pointed out, Branch’s actions directly violated a DART policy issued two years before the 2016 incident. Branch tried to reclaim her immunity shield by claiming ignorance, but the court shot that down.
Branch’s mistake was not reasonable. She didn’t misinterpret an unclear policy or law; she simply failed to learn about DART’s updated policy. And “an officer can gain no Fourth Amendment advantage through a sloppy study of the laws [s]he is duty-bound to enforce.” Heien, 135 S. Ct. at 539–40.
It’s good to see Adelman will be compensated for his violated rights, but this settlement comes courtesy of Branch’s employer, which means Officer Branch really isn’t being held responsible for violating the photographer’s rights. When qualified immunity is stripped, another shield usually takes it place. Government employees generally benefit from indemnification, which ensures they won’t personally be out any money no matter how often they lose lawsuits.
This indemnification helps plaintiffs, since it pretty much guarantees they’ll get paid. But it doesn’t result in greater accountability, as can be observed in multiple cities where law enforcement officers are costing residents millions of dollars every year, year after year. If there’s no direct financial pain, officers who engage in abusive behavior aren’t deterred from violating rights in the future.
Between DART policies and circuit precedent, no transit officer should make this same unreasonable mistake again. It’s too bad taxpayers have to keep paying for these expensive learning experiences.