WILLITS, Calif. (CN) - California Highway Patrol officers unconstitutionally arrested a news photographer for covering a contested highway project, he claims in a lawsuit in Mendocino County Court.
Stephen E. Eberhard sued the California Highway Patrol, the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), CHP Officers Christopher W. Dabbs, Kory A. Reynolds, Teddy M. Babcock, Capt. James T. Epperson, Patrol Chief Bridget T. Lott and Caltrans District 1 Director Charlie Fielder.
In his 34-page lawsuit, Eberhard accuses the agencies of "a pattern of harassment and intimidation," toward him and other journalists reporting on the controversial Willits Bypass Project.
He claims the CHP and Caltrans sought to undermine his professional reputation by falsely describing him as "part of a protest contingent."
To chill his First Amendment rights, CHP officers arrested him though he had broken no laws, delayed processing his arrest and wrongly jailed him, he says. Their conduct "would chill a person of ordinary fitness from continuing to engage in their constitutionally protected activities," according to the complaint.
Protesters who had illegally chained themselves to construction equipment were merely cited and released, Eberhard says in the lawsuit.
Eberhard was wearing press credentials from the Mendocino Sheriff's Department and The Willits News (TWN) when he was arrested on July 23, 2013.
The Willits Bypass Project is "a four-year, $210 million highway construction project involving a 5.9-mile-long, four-lane freeway around the City of Willits," according to the complaint. "It impacts an area known as the Little Lake Valley, a historical cultural resource site where thousands of American Indians once resided, and covers more than 80 acres of sensitive wetlands. The project, first proposed in the 1950s, necessitated issuance of one of the largest wetland fill permits in Northern California history.
"Construction on the project began in February of 2013 and involved, among other things, clearing the site of trees and vegetation and piling 85-foot long wick drains deep into the ground about every 5 feet to drain the wetland area. The project has prompted two lawsuits, one brought by conservation groups in the Northern District of California attempting to halt the project, and another that sought to enjoin the transfer of fill to the site, which was brought to the attention of the public by a photograph taken by Eberhard and published in TWN. Not surprisingly, the project has been highly controversial, sparking public debate and public protests, including but not limited to peaceful, picketing-style protests along the Highway 101 corridor, public lands adjacent to the site and on public land in the area of the project. Several individuals have been arrested after lengthy sit-ins in trees set to be removed as part of the project and others after chaining themselves to construction equipment to impede the project and in protest of it. Since construction on the project began in February 2013, more than 50 arrests, involving more than 30 individuals, have been made by CHP."
The Sherwood Valley Band of Pomo Indians "called upon the United States Congress to halt work on the project after Caltrans construction crews installed deep drains on what is believed to be part of a historical cultural site, possibly causing harm to cultural resources," the complaint states.
"Thus, the Willits Bypass Project is highly newsworthy and has been the subject of extensive media coverage, including but not limited to coverage by TWN, a bi-weekly newspaper circulated throughout the Willits area."