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Caltrans Dropped From Reporter’s Arrest Suit

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - A photojournalist arrested while covering a protest against a controversial highway project in Northern California has agreed to drop his lawsuit against the state's Department of Transportation.

However, Stephen Eberhard will continue to pursue claims against the California Highway Patrol and officers that arrested him when his case goes to trial in February.

Eberhard, who reported for the Willits News, was arrested in July 2013 as he covered a protest against the Willits Bypass Project, a four-lane rerouting of Highway 101 around the notoriously congested center of Willits in central Mendocino County.

Late last month, Eberhard agreed to voluntarily dismiss Caltrans as a defendant from the case.

"We decided to dismiss them voluntarily and proceed against CHP and the arresting officers," Eberhard's lawyer Duffy Carolan, of Jassy Vick Carolan, said. "The only claim that remained against Caltrans was a claim for false arrest under state law."

As part of the settlement, Caltrans agreed to cover its own legal costs but provided no monetary relief to Eberhard, according to Caltrans spokesman Phil Frisbie Jr.

Another condition of dropping the suit against Caltrans was that Frisbie submit to a one-hour interview with Eberhard's defense team before the trial kicks off on Feb. 22.

"As the public information officer for Lake and Mendocino Counties, I've been closely involved with media, providing interviews and access to the project in order to get photos and video," Frisbie said.

In his original complaint, Eberhard claimed that the CHP and Caltrans engaged in "a pattern of harassment and intimidation" toward him and other journalists covering the contested highway project.

Eberhard also claims he was arrested and jailed for trespassing on the construction site without a Caltrans escort while others were simply cited and released.

Frisbie denied allegations that Caltrans conspired to restrict media access to the project in order to suppress negative publicity stemming from coverage of protestors being arrested for trying to halt construction activities.

"We always try to provide access to the media as quickly as we can, but it has to be in a safe manner," Frisbie said. "We require that media in construction areas be escorted by Caltrans, and they have to wear the minimum safety equipment."

In a ruling issued in November, U.S. District Judge James Donato narrowed the claims Eberhard can pursue against CHP and officers that arrested him to allegations that they chilled his First Amendment rights and that the agency can be held liable for the violations under state law.

The voluntary dismissal of Caltrans with prejudice, which does not require a court order, was recognized by the court on Dec. 22.

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