A Dellwood woman has filed a federal lawsuit against a North County Police Cooperative officer, after he confiscated her phone when she tried to videotape the officer arresting a man in a wheelchair at a gas station.
“Criticizing the government and recording police officers as they carry out their public duties is protected by the First Amendment,” said Tony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU of Missouri. “Effective oversight of government by the public is the very reason the First Amendment exists.”
The suit was filed on her behalf by the ACLU of Missouri and the First Amendment Clinic at Washington University School of Law on Friday, October 18.
In August 2018, Sarah Townsend went to the Mobil Gas Station on West Florissant Avenue in Dellwood to buy gas and a soda. While she was at a gas pump, a man using a manual wheelchair approached her and they started talking, according to the lawsuit. Officer T. Williams, of the North County Police Cooperative, pulled up and started to arrest the man.
Townsend began video recording the interaction on her cell phone and told Williams that the man had not been bothering her, the video shows.
When she asked Williams why he was arresting the man, Williams grabbed Townsend’s phone out of her hand and threw it into her car. Townsend, however, retrieved her phone and continued recording the phone.
According to the lawsuit, Williams then stalked across the parking lot to confiscate the phone, turn it off, pocket it, and hurl expletives at Townsend. Eventually, he returned the phone with the video preserved. The suit claims Williams told Townsend he “would be looking for her license plate and would arrest her the next time he saw it.”
The St. Louis American requested a comment from the North County Police Cooperative but did not receive a response by press time. Dellwood Mayor Reggie Jones watched Townsend’s video and offered comment.
“I think it was inappropriate,” Jones said. “From my understanding, he’s under investigation and I’m very confident that the co-op will handle it swiftly and justly.”
While the arrest was occurring, Williams told the man that the store personnel had called “the mayor” about him “begging and harassing” people, the video shows. The lawsuit alleges that Williams told the man that the mayor himself had called the police, though this statement is not heard on the video.
Jones denies this claim and said that hearing Williams talk about the mayor calling was particularly “disturbing” to him.
“I don’t even know who works in that store,” Jones said. “I’ve never communicated with the owners of that store about that individual being arrested. I think Williams was probably trying to use his leverage to let him know how serious it may be.”
Jones said that the man who was arrested has had problems for a “long time” with multiple police departments, prior to the co-op even coming to Dellwood.
“But that in no way justifies the officer confiscating her cell phone,” Jones said.
Jones added that Williams is no longer working in Dellwood and that he is pleased with the North County Police Cooperative’s community engagement and overall policing.
“Although this is not a good moment, it doesn’t reflect how I feel about the North County Co-op,” Jones said. “They serve our community to the upmost.”
Regarding the lawsuit, Lisa Hoppenjans, director of the First Amendment Clinic at Washington University School of Law, said that Townsend acted appropriately.
“Her brave attempt to exercise her rights was met with conduct that was not just unprofessional but also unconstitutional,” Hoppenjans said. “Our Constitution does not allow this type of retaliation.”
As the suit claims, “Confiscation of one’s personal property and threatening a person with arrest – including a continuing indefinite threat into the future – would chill a reasonable person from continuing to record and/or criticize the police.”
The suit asks for “nominal damages and declaratory and injunctive relief” and payment of costs Townsend’s court costs and attorneys’ fees.