Minn. Man’s Skyway Arrest Headed to Trial

     MINNEAPOLIS (CN) – A St. Paul man whose arrest became a viral video has grounds to pursue civil rights claims against the cops who confronted him in a skyway, a federal judge ruled.
     Last week’s Minnesota Federal Court ruling advanced Christopher Lollie’s allegations that the police used excessive force and lacked probable cause in arresting him for trespass and disorderly conduct, sending the case to trial to be heard by a jury.
     Lollie’s January 2014 arrest stemmed from a verbal altercation that turned physical when officers questioned him about his presence in a seating area in a downtown St. Paul pedestrian skyway, where he said he was waiting to pick up his children from a nearby bus stop.
     He filmed most of the confrontation with police on his cell phone and later posted it on YouTube, where it received over a million hits.
     The police had been summoned by a security guard patrolling the skyway, who claimed that Lollie was trespassing in a private seating area, according to court records.
     Disagreements over whether the seating was public or private sparked much controversy, with both Lollie’s video and the court ruling containing statements that Lollie believed he had been told to leave the public seating area because of his race.
     “The problem is I’m black. That’s the problem,” Lollie said in his video, interrupting the officer who had started to tell him why the skyway security guard took issue with his waiting in the seating area.
     The discussion between Lollie and Lori Hayne, a St. Paul police officer, first turned adversarial when Lollie refused to tell her his name during a “walk and talk” between the two through the skyway, which Lollie claims he needed to traverse quickly to get to his children on time.
     Hayne radioed for backup, stating that she was “following [an] uncooperative male” and later claiming she was concerned that Lollie would “resist and possibly fight [her]” if she “attempted to detain [him] by herself,” court records show.
     Neither Lollie’s cell phone recording nor video footage from a skyway security camera showed him acting threatening or disorderly, according to background information in the complaint.
     The situation escalated when another police officer, Michael Johnson, responded to Hayne’s radio call. Johnson allegedly told Lollie that he was going to go to jail “within approximately eight seconds of arriving” and then warned him that “it’s going to get ugly” if he did not put his hands behind his back.
     Lollie protested and was tased in the leg by a third officer, Bruce Schmidt. Seconds later, he found himself in handcuffs after allegedly having been “[taken] to the ground” by the officers, according to court documents.
     Lollie was charged with trespassing, disorderly conduct and obstruction of legal process, all of which are misdemeanors in Minnesota.
     When his criminal charges were dropped, he turned his attention to civil law and filed suit against the City of St. Paul and the three officers, who moved for summary judgment.
     U.S. District Judge Susan Nelson relied on both past legal precedent and video evidence of the melee when she ruled that the officers may have used excessive force and “likely lacked arguable probable cause” to arrest Lollie.
     But the judge cautioned that those are “questions of fact for a jury to decide” and said her Feb. 4 ruling merely provides them a chance to do so.
     According to the 35-page opinion, the Fourth Amendment holds police officers to a “reasonableness standard” for excessive force claims.
     Cops can get physical during a stop, but only to a degree that would be objectively viewed as justifiable under the circumstances, Nelson ruled.
     Although Lollie did not obey all of the police officers’ orders, video evidence showed him to be a “suspected nonviolent misdemeanant who did not flee or actively resist arrest and posed little risk to officer safety or the public,” Nelson wrote.
     There is also a lack of evidence of the confrontation being “tense, uncertain or rapidly evolving” enough that it justified a split-second decision by police as to whether to employ force, according to the ruling.
     “Lollie’s verbal protests throughout the incident consisted primarily of assertions of his innocence, asking that the officers not touch him or arrest him, and pleading with passersby for help,” a footnote in the ruling said.
     Several parts of the 35-page ruling’s account of the fracas mention instances of the officers feeling physically threatened by Lollie, such as Johnson’s assertion that the man “squared up” or “widened his stance” when Johnson approached him, “which [he] took as Lollie preparing to fight.”
     But no such aggression was evident on the video, Nelson found, although she cautions that the tape “[does] not capture the incident from every angle,” leaving many of the “highly disputed” events of the confrontation to question.
     The court used as its video evidence side-by-side footage featuring both Lollie’s cell phone video, which at times recorded only sound and no picture, and a surveillance tape from a nearby bank, which recorded images but no sound.
     “What is not captured well in a written account of this incident is how quickly it progressed,” Nelson wrote. “In just over one minute, Lollie is stopped, told he is going to jail, restrained against a wall, allegedly choked, tased and taken to the floor by the officers.”
     Not only was the officers’ use of force questionable, but they also “likely lacked even arguable probable cause” to arrest Lollie, according to the judge.
     Instead, they allegedly cuffed him for trespassing and other crimes amid his repeated professions of innocence, without even a cursory investigation into whether he had actually trespassed or not, the ruling states.
     “An officer need not conduct a ‘mini-trial before making an arrest, but probable cause does not exist when a ‘minimal further investigation’ would have exonerated the subject,” the ruling said, citing Eight Circuit precedent.
     In questioning Lollie, Nelson wrote, the officers “focused almost exclusively on ascertaining [his] identity” rather than determining whether he had broken the law, thereby destroying their grounds to claim qualified immunity on Lollie’s false arrest allegation.
     However, the judge ruled in the officers’ favor for their claim that they were justified in stopping Lollie in the first place.
     The assertions by both the skyway security guard and Hayne that they were dealing with an “uncooperative male who would not leave what was allegedly a private seating area” provided basis enough to ask him for identification and attempt to determine whether he was in fact trespassing, Nelson found.
     Nelson also ruled against Lollie’s recent allegation that Hayne failed to intervene in the excessive force being used against him, finding that he did not show “the good cause necessary” to amend his initial complaint.
     Lollie is represented by St. Paul civil rights attorney Andrew Irlbeck, who said he could not comment on the story because of the pending trial date, which is scheduled for March 22.
     St. Paul City Attorney Judith Hanson argued on behalf of the city and the three cops. A Monday morning voicemail requesting comment from her was not immediately returned, and a St. Paul public information spokesman said Friday that it is the city’s policy to not comment on pending litigation.

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