April Ehrich was arrested in 2020 while reporting on police sweep of a Medford homeless camp
By Stephen Floyd, Ashland.news
A former Ashland reporter arrested in Medford in 2020 while covering the sweep of a homeless camp in a city park has sued the city and several police officers after her criminal charges were dismissed.
April Ehrlich, who worked for Jefferson Public Radio at the time of the incident, filed suit in federal court Sept. 20 seeking unspecified damages against the City of Medford, City Manager Brian Sjothun, and eight law enforcement officers for her arrest Sept. 22, 2020.
At the time, Ehrlich was among reporters covering the forced evacuation of a homeless camp at Hawthorne Park where nearly 100 individuals were staying, many displaced by the COVID-19 pandemic and Almeda Fire. Ehrlich entered the park in defiance of police directives, stating she had a right as a member of the media to enter a public space. She was taken into custody by several officers who claimed she was there unlawfully.
Reports submitted by these officers alleged Ehrlich, whose case was filed under her legal name April Fonseca, violently resisted arrest. However, body camera footage showed Ehrlich neither jerked away from nor fought officers. Though she was initially arrested for interfering with a police officer, this charge was later dropped by the city.
Ehrlich, who is now a news editor with Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB), was scheduled for trial Sept. 16 in Medford Municipal Court on remaining charges of trespassing and resisting arrest and faced up to a year in jail. On Aug. 26, a judge granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss the trespassing charge. The remaining count was dismissed Aug. 30 after prosecutors said they faced insurmountable challenges in proving their case to a jury.
In response to the lawsuit, Medford released a statement Wednesday, Sept. 28, re-asserting that the closure of the park was lawful and neither Ehrlich nor other journalists were an exception to that closure.
“When property is closed to the general public, including areas temporarily closed by police action to the public, it is closed to reporters just like other members of the public,” said the city, adding Ehrlich was “instructed about the closure area and was arrested only after refusing a lawful order to leave the closure area.”
Medford said it had no further comment in light of the pending litigation.
Body cams allegedly contradict police
According to court filings, the police who arrested Ehrlich, or observed the incident, gave official statements claiming she “thrashed” and “kicked” as she resisted officers and attempted to break free. Footage from the body camera of Sgt. Steven Furst showed Ehrlich screaming that officers should let her go as officers ask her to not resist, and she did pull against officers bringing her hands behind her back to be handcuffed, however the video did not support the violence described by police.
A July 21 court filing by Ehrlich went further and said police not only mischaracterized her reaction to the arrest, but themselves employed unnecessary violence in an attempt to subdue her. The filing said, though Parole Officer Anna Stokes reported having to pay careful attention to not trip over Ehrlich’s feet during the arrest, cell phone footage from a bystander actually showed Stokes kicking at Ehlrich’s stationary feet “in what appeared to be an attempt to trip Ms. Fonseca to the ground.”
Body camera footage further showed selective enforcement of the order to close the park, according to Ehrlich. Though the city claims no civilians were exempt from the order, footage allegedly showed the parks and recreation director being allowed to remain after being contacted by police, while a member of the city council (unnamed in court filings) was allowed to remain in a lot adjacent to the park and speak with Kirkpatrick, who was head of the police department’s livability section.
A request for dismissal
The July 21 filing was submitted with a request to dismiss the charge of trespassing, on the grounds that the park closure was unlawful and the public had a right to gather there under the First Amendment.
It cited a section of the Oregon constitution which prohibited any laws limiting free expression, including the right to photograph and record matters of public interest. Ehrlich cited case law that argued, if the city closed down a public space such as a park, it was required to justify why the closure was necessary in light of the detriment to the public of losing a gathering space, and any closure should be narrowly defined to preserve the opportunity to assemble.
Because the city unilaterally closed the park and declared all members of the public were barred, Ehrlich argued the closure was illegal, and therefore she could not be charged with trespassing in a space she has a right to occupy.
“There can be no argument that a member of the professional press silently observing governmental activities in a public park is the ‘evil’ the closure order sought to remedy,” said the court filing. “Allowing the press, or the public, to witness and document the interactions between law enforcement and people residing in Hawthorne Park does not undermine the interest in sanitation, cleaning, and inspection of city property.”
The city took issue with Elrich’s characterization of the body camera footage and said she presented the facts in the light most likely to benefit herself and not in a context directly supporting her motion for dismissal, however the city did not offer the court an alternate narrative. Medford also argued its city charter gives it authority over city property and closure of the park was appropriate in light of multiple complaints regarding drug use, fighting, the accumulation of waste and damage to public property at the park.
“The Supreme Court has emphasized that the publisher of a newspaper has no special immunity from the application of general laws and has no special privilege to invade the rights and liberties of others,” said the city in an Aug. 4 objection to Ehrlich’s request for dismissal.
Leveling blame at unnamed groups
The city’s objection included a copy of the police department’s action plan for clearing of the park, dated Sept. 18, 2020. The plan said the nearly-100 individuals camping at the park were indeed homeless, but made the unsubstantiated claim that such individuals were recruited to occupy the park by an unnamed group “affiliated with Black Lives Matter and Black Unity.”
“The group claimed the subjects were displaced by the Almeda Fire and requested donations to serve those subjects,” said the operation plan. “Many of the claims of displacement have been determined to be false. The group has also been accused of intercepting donations destined for established organizations by claiming to represent those entities.”
When asked to clarify these assertions, including the name of the group in question and how many false claims of fire displacement were uncovered, city spokesperson Kristina Johnsen said Medford was not issuing further statements in light of the ongoing litigation.
The operation plan also said an increase in drug use, littering and other unlawful behavior made the park “no longer accessible by the public” and removal of the camp would require closing the park for at least 48 hours. Included with the operation plan were photographs of trash piled outside campsites and debris in a nearby parking lot.
Case unable to proceed
Despite the city’s arguments, Municipal Court Judge William Haberlach granted Ehrlich’s request to dismiss the trespassing charge without opinion on Aug. 26.
Because this charge could no longer be argued, the city attorney’s office said proving the remaining charge of resisting arrest would be too great a challenge. On Aug. 30, a bit more than two weeks before Ehrlich’s trial, the city submitted a request to dismiss the case without prejudice, reserving the right to refile charges in the future if they deem necessary.
“Plaintiff, City of Medford, moves the court for an order dismissing without prejudice the complaint in the above entitled case as a result of the court’s recent order on the trespass count, and the challenges it presented in pursuing the remaining resisting arrest charge,” read the motion.
Unspecific damages, specific intention
Ehrlich’s lawsuit said her experience at the hands of police, including the night she spent in the Jackson County Jail, has left her with emotional and mental injuries that she is still recovering from two years later.
“As a result of Defendants’ actions, Plaintiff suffered from wrenching of her arms and wrists, pain and alarm, and suffered, continues to suffer, and may permanently suffer from humiliation, frustration, anger, and a sense of personal violation,” said the lawsuit.
She said the city further imposed on her constitutional rights to free expression and equal protection, and her right against undue search and seizure. She additionally claims the city’s actions constitute batter and wrongful arrest under state law.
Though she is seeking non-economic damages for these offenses, Ehrlich plans to entrust the jury to determine an appropriate monetary amount. The suit also said she hopes the jury imposes punitive damages to a degree that will encourage Medford to rethink any future plans to intimidate reporters or restrict First Amendment rights.
“Defendants created and implemented a policy that purported to block all reporters from
entering a public park to observe and report on government activities,” said the lawsuit. “…The Defendants’ conduct toward Plaintiff demonstrated a wanton, reckless or callous
indifference to the constitutional rights of Plaintiff. The jury should be allowed to consider punitive damages to deter this conduct and similar conduct by the defendants and others similarly situated in the future.”
The suit has been assigned to Federal Judge Mark Clarke. Defendants were served with notice of the suit Sept. 27 and parties have been given until Jan. 19, 2023, to complete their discovery requests and until Feb. 21, 2023, to file pre-trial motions.