Jury Clears CA Cops of Chilling-Effect Claims

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – A nine-member jury found Monday that state troopers did not intend to discourage a reporter from covering a controversial highway project when they shoved and arrested him in 2013.
     Stephen Eberhard, a photographer for The Willits News, sued the California Highway Patrol (CHP), one officer that shoved him, and two that arrested him as he tried to shoot photos at the Willits Bypass Project site in Mendocino County in 2013.
     Eberhard’s attorney, Duffy Carolan, and state prosecutor Harry “Chip” Gower III delivered their final arguments to the jury Monday morning, ending a five-day trial that started Feb. 22.
     After a few hours of deliberation, the jury found CHP Officer Teddy Babcock, who shoved Eberhard, and CHP Officers Kory Reynolds and Christopher Dabbs, who arrested him, did not intend to chill his First Amendment rights.
     “I regret that the jury didn’t see our side of the truth,” Eberhard said in a phone call following the verdict. “It’s hard to prove intent.”
     The trial revealed video evidence of CHP officials saying journalists would be the first people arrested during protests, as well as internal emails calling press coverage “counterproductive” and seeking to restrict media access to the construction site.
     In his closing statement, Gower told jurors that the officers took action against Eberhard not because of what he was doing, but rather because of where he was doing it.
     “When you look at the evidence, the reason they did these things was not to discourage him from taking photos,” Gower said. “Officers Dabbs and Reynolds arrested Mr. Eberhard because he was trespassing. Officer Babcock pushed him because he was in an unsafe area.”
     Eberhard, who won an award from the Society of Professional Journalists – Northern California for his coverage of the project, said he does not regret reporting on the story, even though he was assaulted and arrested in the process.
     “I was the only link in our community to cover this,” Eberhard said. “People wanted to know what was happening. I felt obligated, and I fulfilled my obligations.”
     Eberhard said he is still digesting the verdict and has not decided whether or not he will appeal the outcome.
     CHP Director of Communications Fran Clader declined to comment on the verdict Tuesday morning, citing the still-pending nature of the litigation.

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