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Federal jury rejects civil rights claims against troopers

5th February 2018   ·   0 Comments

After a four-day trial in New Orleans, a federal jury rejected a series of civil rights claims against three members of the Louisiana State Police who were accused of racially profiling and unlawfully detaining a Black college student while he was visiting the French Quarter in 2015.

The jury awarded no compensation to the plaintiff, Lyle Dotson, even though it found that one of the state troopers violated his Fourth Amendment rights.

Jim Craig, the plaintiff’s attorney, said that even though the jury awarded no compensation, the verdict vindicated “Dotson’s right not to be seized by a Louisiana state trooper for the purpose of taking his picture.”

“We are studying the verdict and plan to seek further review,” Craig told The New Orleans Advocate. “The people of New Orleans should be alarmed that the State Police are a threat to the constitutional rights of law-abiding residents of — and visitors to — New Orleans.”

The federal lawsuit, which cites a number of incidents involving Black males who say they were racially profiled, targeted and attacked by state troopers, contends that state troopers routinely use excessive force against Black people in the French Quarter. The plaintiffs, represented by the MacArthur Justice Center, claimed that the Louisiana State Police condone the “unjustified harassment of African Americans in New Orleans, including the detention and arrest of African Americans without probable cause.”

The lawsuit cited several incidents that took place over the past few years, including the violent stop of New Orleans trumpeter Shamarr Allen who was stopped in 2014 by state troopers while driving to his Ninth Ward home after a late-night gig in the French Quarter. The state troopers reportedly followed and stopped Allen because they were searching for an escaped suspect. Also cited was an incident involving a Black barber who was sitting in his car checking messages on his phone outside his shop in the CBD when he was approached and detained by state troopers, who reportedly were responding to a report of several Black males in a car firing shots in the CBD. The barber said he was questioned and roughed up by the state troopers and required medical treatment for injuries sustained during the violent encounter.

Before the federal jury’s Jan. 29 ruling, the plaintiffs’ case was weakened by a ruling by U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan, who ruled that the plaintiffs failed to demonstrate a pattern of civil rights violations and dismissed Dotson’s claims that former Louisiana State Police Supt. Mike Edmonson failed to properly train the law enforcement officers under his command and turned a blind eye toward their aggressive tactics.

U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan presidents over the federally mandated NOPD consent decree which aims to bring the city’s troubled police department up to federal standards for constitutional policing. The NOPD and the City of New Orleans began implementing the 492-point consent decree in August 2013.

The Dotson lawsuit underscores the blurred lines between the NOPD and the Louisiana State Police, who were deployed to New Orleans in larger numbers in the wake of a high-profile shooting on Bourbon Street in 2014. The state troopers have been utilized by the City of New Orleans to bolster public safety and lend support to the undermanned NOPD, which has lost more than 400 officers since New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu took office in 2010.

The arrangement hasn’t always worked out for Black males, including teenagers Sidney Newman and Ferdinand Hunt who were attacked by plainclothes state troopers in 2014 while standing around in the French Quarter after a Carnival parade waiting for NOPD Officer Betty Hunt, Ferdinand’s mother, to bring them a meal.

Hunt and Newman were surrounded by the state troopers and reportedly tackled to the ground. The state troopers backed off after Officer Hunt arrived on the scene and confronted them.

The families of both teens filed a federal complaint against the state troopers.

The Landrieu administration sought to distance itself from the incident by suggesting that it involved state troopers and not New Orleans police, but video surveillance later showed a white female NOPD officer directing the plainclothes state troopers to confront the teenagers.

The NOPD consent decree forbids racial profiling and allows officers to make investigatory stops only when they have “reasonable suspicion that a person has been, is or is about to be engaged in the commission of a crime.”

“We were never told not to do our job,” Edmonson is quoted as saying in a recent deposition. He added that City of New Orleans officials “clearly knew what we brought to the table” when they requested assistance patrolling the French Quarter.

Sgt. Huey McCartney, one of the three state troopers named in the Dotson lawsuit, said in a deposition that his NOPD counterparts seem to be afraid to perform basic components of their job that are “totally legal.”

The New Orleans Advocate reported that McCartney blamed the federal consent decree for the killing of NOPD Officer Marcus McNeil, who used a stun gun on a suspect before being fatally shot.

“It seems like the NOPD officers were afraid of getting in trouble based on the consent decree,” McCartney said. “There’s going to be part of me that’s always going to wonder if that man would have been alive if it weren’t for the consent decree.”

Jim Craig, Dotson’s attorney, called upon the New Orleans City Council and the new administration to reconsider the deployment of state troopers in New Orleans.

“The people of New Orleans should be alarmed that the state troopers patrolling the streets of New Orleans refuse to acknowledge or abide by the basic protections outlined in the NOPD consent decree,” Craig said.

Lyle Dotson, an 18-year-old college student, and several of his classmates from Ball State University in Indiana were visiting the city to study New Orleans architecture when the incident occurred.

Dotson got separated from the group while on Bourbon Street and was on the phone with his father, a Ball State University professor who accompanied the students on the trip, when he was approached by the three state troopers — McCartney, Calvin Anderson and Tagie Journee.

The troopers said Dotson fit the description of another Black who was reportedly “shadowing” an undercover drug transaction that State Police were conducting in the French Quarter.

The state troopers reportedly grabbed Dotson’s iPhone out of his hand, questioned him and, according to Dotson, refused to give him their names or badge numbers. According to the lawsuit, the troopers then pushed Dotson against a wall, handcuffed him and searched him in an effort to identify him.

The encounter then escalated when McCartney attempted to take a picture of Dotson while the teen was lying on the ground and Dotson told him that he did not have permission to photograph him.

McCartney claims Dotson kicked him twice while the teen said he only “raised his knee” to block the camera’s view of his face.

The federal jury rejected Dotson’s claims that he was detained without “reasonable suspicion” and that he was arrested without probable cause. Although it did not award any damages, the jury found that McCartney violated Dotson’s Fourth Amendment rights “by continuing to detain (him) after any reasonable suspicion for the stop had dissipated.”

This article originally published in the February 5, 2018 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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