CHICAGO (CN) - A black woman who was arrested while reading utility meters in a 97 percent white neighborhood can sue the two police officers who put her in handcuffs, the 7th Circuit ruled, noting that the officers failed to prove that the arrest was anything more than "a blatant and embarrassing abuse of police power."
A federal judge had ruled that the arresting officers were not entitled to dismiss the civil rights charges under qualified immunity, and the federal appeals panel upheld that decision on Friday.
On August 16, 2005, a concerned citizen in Braidwood, Ill. - which 2000 census figures indicate is over 97 percent white - called the police at 8 a.m. to report that a "person of color" was taking pictures of houses.
Christina Jones, a Commonwealth Edison worker, was reading electrical meters in the neighborhood and carrying binoculars to take readings from outside a locked gate or dog-guarded property. Officers Craig Clark and Donn Kaminski conceded to Jones' account of the events that transpired but still argued that they were justified to be suspicious of and ultimately arrest Jones.
Jones' shirt, pants, hat and reflective vest were all emblazoned with ComEd's logo. When asked, she presented Clark with two ComEd identification cards that displayed her picture. Jones explained that her binoculars, used to take meter readings from a distance, may have been mistaken for a camera.
Clark had radioed in that Jones was reading meters, but, "surprisingly, that did not end the investigation," Judge Diane Wood wrote for the 7th Circuit's three-judge panel.
When Jones turned to leave and return to work, Clark stopped her, asking for her birthday.
Jones accused Clark of harassing her, took a few steps away and phoned her supervisor. Clark radioed the other officer, Kaminski, reporting that Jones was refusing to cooperate.
Kaminski, apparently irate, then arrived on the scene. He screamed at Jones, knocked the phone from her hands and placed her under arrest.
Friday's ruling notes that as Jones was being patted down, she said, "This is harassment. ... This is happening because I am black in Braidwood."
At the station, Kaminski reportedly mocked Jones, mimicking her voice and adding, "You wanted to make it racial out there. ... Now it's racial."
Jones was charged with obstructing a peace officer, but Wood said the facts of the case point another way.
"The only disorderly conduct evident in this case came from Officers Clark and Kaminski," Wood wrote.
Jones fought the charge for over two years until it was terminated with a verdict in her favor.
Wood found that the officers could not prove that they had any basis to suspect Jones of criminal wrongdoing - their lawyer told the court at oral arguments "that the officers 'thought she was casing the place'" - let alone arrest her.
While crooks may sometimes pose as utility workers, the ruling states that Jones had been professional in her attire and conduct. "None of this would lead any reasonable person to believe that criminal activity was afoot," Wood wrote. "It is not a crime to take pictures on the street, and it is not an offense for a ComEd worker to read electrical meters using binoculars."
Wood added that the officers' defense "reveals nothing but a blatant and embarrassing abuse of police power."
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