BOSTON (CN) – The 1st Circuit allowed a group of journalists to pursue excessive force claims against FBI agents who allegedly doused them with pepper spray and beat them with metal batons as they tried to cover the FBI’s execution of a search warrant on a prominent Puerto Rican political activist.
On Feb. 10, 2006, reporters, photographers and camera operators clustered outside the gated condominium complex of Liliana Laboy-Rodriguez in San Juan, Puerto Rico, to watch as the FBI search the home of the Puerto Rican independence activist.
A U.S. Department of Homeland Security helicopter carrying heavily armed FBI agents landed in a nearby field. As the agents marched toward the condo, they allegedly pushed away journalists’ microphones, blocked the lens of one camera and raised a rifle at them.
By this time, a crowd of bystanders and media members had gathered at the gate, the ruling states, some of whom swore at the U.S. agents.
Laboy-Rodriguez’s daughter, Natalia Hernandez-Laboy, arrived and entered the gated area. About 15 to 20 journalists followed her in, allegedly in response to her “wave.” They claimed the armed FBI agents beat them and used pepper spray trying to force them out, though the journalists said they were peaceful at all times.
The Asociacion de Periodistas de Puerto Rico and the Overseas Press Club of Puerto Rico, two media organizations, joined the journalists in suing the FBI and its officials for alleged violations of the First and Fourth Amendments.
The appellate court affirmed dismissal of their First Amendment claims on qualified immunity grounds, but revived their claims for excessive force. Judge Torruella rejected the FBI’s argument that its agents had simply responded to an increasingly angry crowd that had been armed with stones.
“Nothing in the record establishes that the crowd was unruly or that the journalists within the gated area created a situation that gave rise to such safety concerns,” the judge wrote.
“One could imagine that even if a reasonable officer would have believed it appropriate to use pepper spray in response to an unruly mob (and thus be entitled to immunity), applying pepper spray into the face of an unthreatening journalist lying on the ground might well not be protected under the mantle of qualified immunity.”