SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – The California Highway Patrol asked state transportation officials to deny media access to a construction site and had Caltrans tip off police when reporters were coming, jurors heard Thursday in a news photographer’s false arrest lawsuit against the CHP.
Jurors saw emails exchanged by CHP officers and the Department of Transportation, or Caltrans, on the third day of the Highway Patrol’s trial in Stephen Eberhard’s false arrest claim.
Eberhard sued the Highway Patrol and three officers who assaulted and arrested him in 2013 as he covered protests against a highway project in Northern California.
Eberhard says officers damaged his reputation and tried to chill his First Amendment rights to stop him from covering protests against the Willits Bypass Project, a $300-million job to reroute 6 miles of Highway 101 in Mendocino County. Rush hour traffic could clog the town of 5,000 people with half-hour waits.
Then-CHP Capt. James Epperson, now an assistant chief, asked Caltrans media escort Matt McKeon to alert police each time reporters planned to cover the construction project, according to an email McKeon sent on May 13, 2013.
“Capt. Epperson requested that in the future we give officers a heads up if we are going to the site,” McKeon wrote in the email. “We also got the impression that he would prefer that press access be somewhat limited.”
That email was sent the same day CHP officers arrested three protesters at the project site. One of the arrests was captured on video and promptly posted on YouTube.
Epperson, who testified Thursday, said he did not request the “heads up” to control or stifle media coverage, but to make sure police knew who was authorized to be in the work zone. “In an operation like this, communication is key,” Epperson told the jury. “One of the things we needed to communicate was who is allowed out there and who is not allowed out there.”
In an email Epperson sent to a superior officer that same day, he said he had spoken with a Caltrans construction supervisor about the media’s filming arrests, and commented that may be “counterproductive and actually assisting the protestors.”
A few weeks later, when officers were preparing to remove a protester who had occupied a tall piece of digging equipment for 11 days, CHP asked Caltrans to deny the press access to the site, so that the protester’s removal and arrest would not be seen by the public.
“I told Steve we would not be able to provide access to the site today,” McKeon wrote in an email on July 1, 2013. “CHP requested we not provide access to the site today. Obviously, [Eberhard] was not very happy.”
On the witness stand, Epperson said he asked Caltrans to deny the press access that day not to stop Eberhard from documenting the removal and arrest of a protester, but for safety reasons.
“To have press or anyone interrupt in the middle of enforcement contact … when we’re engaged in something like this, we prefer that we can have control of our enforcement action,” Epperson said.
Photographer’s Wife Testifies
Also Thursday, Eberhard’s wife of 35 years, Lana Eberhard, told the jury that her husband’s arrest sent him into a deep depression that took him months to crawl out of.
The photographer, who moved to Willits with his wife in 2002, was arrested on the morning of July 23, 2013 as he tried to snap photos of two protesters who had chained themselves to construction equipment.
“He was embarrassed. He was humiliated. He was depressed. He was sleepless, restless, constantly in motion,” Eberhard’s wife said. “All he could talk about was the arrest. It lasted for months.”
After the arrest, her husband stopped observing his usual rituals – eating breakfast at a downtown café each morning, chatting with people at local businesses and going to see live music at the town pub’s open mike night each Wednesday.
“He was embarrassed to see people and didn’t want to talk about the arrest,” his wife said.
Being forced to sit in the back of a police car for more than an hour with his hands cuffed, windows closed and seats against his knees re-triggered a condition that Lana thought her husband had overcome years earlier, she said.
“I knew he had claustrophobia years ago, but it wasn’t a big deal until he was arrested,” Lana said.
On cross-examination, state prosecutor Harry “Chip” Gower III asked Lana if the couple’s friends ever criticized her husband because of his arrest or if he lost any friends as a result of it.
She answered, “No.”
Gower asked if she used to refer to her husband as “the unofficial mayor of Willits” because of his popularity in the community.
“I have said that,” she acknowledged with a smile.
Gower asked if the couple is still welcome at community events and if people still want to shake her husband’s hand at those events, and she said he was.
Gower’s questions appeared to be part of a strategy to downplay the injuries Eberhard claims to have suffered.
Before the day ended, one juror wrote a final question for Lana, asking if her husband ever saw a medical doctor for treatment of the depression and anxiety he suffered after the arrest.
She said her husband did not seek treatment from a doctor.
Stephen Eberhard was expected to testify Friday.
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