Journo’s False-Arrest Suit Against Caltrans Advances

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – A photojournalist arrested while covering a protest against a controversial highway project can continue his lawsuit against the California Department of Transportation, a federal judge ruled Monday.
     Stephen E. Eberhard first sued the California Highway Patrol, Caltrans and officials and officers from both agencies on April 24, 2014, for false arrest and imprisonment, violating his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights and other claims.
     Eberhard, who reported for the Willits News, was arrested on July 23, 2013, during a protest against the Willits Bypass Project. Once finished the four-lane freeway will take Highway 101 around the notoriously congested center of Willits, population 4,888, in central Mendocino County.
     U.S. District Judge James Donato previously dismissed Eberhard’s original complaint and subsequent amended complaints, finding the allegations were “insufficient” or “inadequately pleaded.”
     In his third amended complaint, Eberhard implicates Caltrans as complicit in his false arrest and imprisonment.
     Caltrans asked the court to dismiss the false-arrest claims against it, arguing that because the CHP arrested Eberhard, he could not sue Caltrans for false arrest.
     According to Eberhard’s third amended complaint, Caltrans media representative Matt McKeon sent an e-mail on May 13, 2013, saying that McKeon and a Caltrans engineer told CHP Captain James T. Epperson, a defendant in the lawsuit, to arrest or turn away a TWN videographer or “anyone else that entered the site without an escort.”
     The complaint alleges that at that time, the escort protocol only applied to Eberhard and other TWN journalists.
     Eberhard also says on the morning of the day he was arrested, CHP officer and defendant Kory Reynolds asked Caltrans engineer Melanie Collins if Eberhard had permission to be on the site, and Collins replied that Eberhard did not have permission.
     In his Aug. 10 ruling, Donato found the allegations were enough to infer “that Caltrans’s actions were what caused CHP to arrest Eberhard, and that they would not have done so if Caltrans had told them, for example, that Eberhard was authorized to be on the site, or that CHP should simply turn Eberhard away instead of arresting him.”
     Donato denied Caltrans’ motion to dismiss the complaint, but also denied Eberhard’s requests to add a new defendant and new allegations to his complaint.
     Eberhard sought to add claims against Epperson over his alleged involvement in writing a letter about the arrest, signed by CHP Chief Bridgett T. Lott, to the Society of Environmental Journalists.
     Donato ruled that because complaints against Lott over the letter were already dismissed as insufficient, Eberhard’s could not lodge the same allegations against Epperson.
     The judge also found Eberhard missed the deadline to add CHP Sgt. Steven Lott as a defendant in the complaint, concluding Eberhard already knew most of the essential facts he relied on in his request to add Sgt. Lott as a defendant before the deadline had passed.
     Eberhard’s attorney, Duffy Carolan of Jassy Bick Carolan of San Francisco did not immediately return requests for comment.
     Caltrans District 1 Public Information Chief Betsy Totten declined to comment on pending litigation.

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