The price of justice
When a Reno man went for his camera, Sparks police went for their ’cuffs
The city of Sparks had to pony up $36,500 after police arrested a man for legally shooting footage of a public occurrence in a public place.
Lin Hale, a Southwest Airlines employee, was arrested in downtown Sparks for using a video camera to shoot footage of an incident in a city-owned garage.
According to the suit filed by Reno attorney Terri Keyser Cooper, Hale was in Sparks to watch the July 4 fireworks last year and shot some of the event with his new camera. After the event, Hale and a friend, Jaime Sanchez, decided to visit the Southwest Airlines booth on the top of the municipal parking garage attached to the downtown Sparks theaters. The garage was rented by the Sparks Nugget during the fireworks.
On the third floor of the garage, Hale and his friend saw a man being given first aid. Hale raised his camera and started rolling on the scene. Nugget security guard John Tinney showed up and told Hale to stop taping and leave. Hale and his friend left and continued on to the fourth floor. While there, they saw the injured man downstairs being wheeled away on a gurney. Hale again started shooting footage from the fourth floor until, according to the suit, he was accosted and physically attacked by Tinney, who tried to seize the camera.
At that point, Hale said, “You can’t do that. That’s what this day is all about—personal freedoms.” According to the lawsuit, making that statement was the most disorderly thing Hale did during the entire incident.
Tinney summoned police, while Hale turned his camera over to another friend to hold for him.
When Sparks Police Officer Jason Woodard arrived, the lawsuit alleges, he was abusive in word and action, head-butting Sanchez for about 30 feet. Woodard arrested both Hale and Sanchez, handcuffed them and searched Sanchez. Sparks Police Commander Gary Potter showed up, told Woodard the arrest was “ridiculous” and told Woodard to release the two men (Woodard didn’t) but also allegedly spoke abusively to the two men.
Hale was particularly troubled when a television camera crew shot footage of the two men while they were seated handcuffed and as they were being put into a police car, making them look like criminals. Hale says he made a point of looking directly at the television camera—"I wasn’t hiding because I knew I had nothing to hide about.”
The men were charged with “obstructing an officer.” Sanchez, who lives in Los Angeles, chose not to incur the costs involved in fighting the case. He pleaded guilty and paid a fine, even though Keyser Cooper (who gives bar association workshops on “Police Conduct/Where the Law Draws the Line") said his case was even stronger than Hale’s because he had been merely a bystander. She expressed surprise that Hale was willing to fight the case.
“That’s the thing that was unusual with Hale. … Overwhelmingly, when this kind of thing happens, people just pay a fine, and they just want to forget it ever happened and never deal with the police again. They don’t want to hire a criminal lawyer, then hire a civil-rights lawyer, then go through a year and a half of litigation.”
Hale says his decision to fight the case had a lot to do with having to explain his arrest to his two stepchildren.
“And I told them, ‘If you ever do anything wrong, you have to be accountable. But anybody ever accuses you of doing something wrong, and you’re not guilty of it, you’d better stand up for your rights.’ “
There was no explanation of why Woodard would make such an arrest on the say-so of a private business’s security guard, particularly on an alleged crime against the city rather than a property crime like trespass.
The city reduced the number of city guards (provided by Holman Security under a city contract) in the downtown garages when a $100,000 surveillance camera system was installed in June 2002. Keyser Cooper says she was not aware of the cameras, or she would have subpoenaed the tapes. As it was, she produced five sworn statements from witnesses that Hale was peaceful, law-abiding and sober.
The case against Hale was thrown out of court in September 2003. The lawsuit was filed against the Sparks Police Department, Woodard and Potter. Potter was included, the filing said, because he “made a deliberate choice among other options of continuing with Hale’s unlawful arrest.”
The suit also charged that such police conduct happens in Sparks because, “by custom and acceptance,” city government has given its approval. It also contends that there is a history in the SPD of using the “obstructing” charge to retaliate “against those who criticize police activity” and that the city failed to provide adequate training and supervision for Potter and Woodard.
Keyser Cooper says she has encountered similar problems with the Sparks police before, including a case of an officer breaking a camera.
Sparks City Attorney Chet Adams says the case has resulted in new training for police officers.
“We’re very adverse to settle lawsuits, and when we have to settle one for whatever reason, there is a very austere consciousness-raising over there [at SPD].”
No legal action is pending against the Nugget or Tinney, and both Cooper and Nugget spokesperson Frankie Vigil refused to discuss the reason why. This likely means a settlement with a confidentiality clause was reached.
When asked if the Nugget’s security staff has been given new instructions and procedures to reflect the outcome of the Hale incident, the Nugget’s Vigil said, “When dealing with instances such as this when we are on city property, we really take our lead from the Sparks Police Department, and we will continue to do so.”
However, the Hale incident began before the police were on the scene, and when asked about whether procedures used prior to the arrival of police have been changed, Vigil said, “I can’t comment on that.” She said Tinney is still employed by the Nugget.
The Sparks Tribune reported that the person on the gurney was a Nugget security guard who had been shot by another Nugget security guard. However, Keyser Cooper and Vigil both say that a Nugget security guard was shot by another person, not by another guard.