SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - A jury heard opening statements and testimony Monday from two state troopers on the first trial day of a news photographer's false arrest suit against the California Highway Patrol.
Stephen Eberhard says three CHP officers intimidated and arrested him to retaliate for his covering protests of a highway project in Mendocino County.
The state says the officers were simply "doing their jobs" and arrested Eberhard because he was trespassing.
Eberhard sued the CHP , the Department of Transportation, or Caltrans, and officials and officers from both agencies in April 2014. Caltrans was dropped from the suit in December, but Eberhard is still pursuing claims against the CHP, two officers who arrested him and a third officer who shoved him away from a construction zone in what Eberhard calls intimidation and harassment.
He says his arrest on July 23, 2013 was a blatant effort to chill his First Amendment rights and to stifle coverage of the Willits Bypass Project.
The $300-million project to reroute 6 miles of Highway 101 around the often-congested town center of Willits in Mendocino County became a target for environmental protests when construction began in the spring of 2013.
The Society of Professional Journalists - Northern California honored Eberhard with its first Photojournalist Award in 2015, recognizing his "efforts to document protests" against the project "after enduring months of harassment from police for his coverage."
In his opening statement, state prosecutor Harry Gower III said jurors will see and hear evidence that the officers who arrested Eberhard "did not care about the pictures he was taking" and arrested him for one reason alone - because he was trespassing.
Gower said Eberhard and his employer, The Willits News, were well aware of a policy requiring members of the media be accompanied by a Caltrans escort and wear a hard hat and reflective vest to enter the construction site.
Eberhard's attorney, Duffy Carolan, did not deny that Eberhard knew the policy existed, but said he was treated differently than other trespassers, most of whom were given warnings, citations and released, but not arrested.
The Highway Patrol described its relationship with journalists covering the protests as "a boxing match" the month before Eberhard was arrested, Carolan told jurors in her opening statement.
"When CHP believes it's in a boxing match with the media, it's the messenger that's going to go down every time," she said.
Protesters who had chained themselves to construction equipment were given citations and released, but Eberhard was arrested and held in jail for hours, she said.
"We think the evidence in this case will show Mr. Eberhard was singled out because what he was doing on the site in the months preceding his arrest," Carolan said.
Gower told jurors the case is not about "whether Mr. Eberhard was treated like a protester," and that Eberhard was arrested because he was trespassing in violation of a clearly communicated Caltrans policy.
The prosecutor said he will emphasize four points at trial: that Eberhard violated the Caltrans escort policy, that he was arrested for trespassing, that he cannot prove the officers had a retaliatory intent, and that Eberhard suffered no injuries from the arrest.