WILLITS, Calif. — A photojournalist has dropped his lawsuit against California Department of Transport for his arrest while covering a highly disputed highway project in Northern California, but the plaintiff still plans to move forward with his claim against California Highway Patrol (CHP) and the arresting officers who allegedly violated his rights.
Photojournalist Stephen Eberhard was arrested in July 2013 while he covered a protest over a Highway 101 rerouting project called the Willits Bypass Project. The project is aimed at freeing up a congested area in Willits.
Construction of the four-year Willits Bypass Project began in 2012. Protesters have raised concerns about the project’s impact on sensitive wetlands and a historical cultural resource site once inhabited by thousands of American Indians.
Eberhard initially brought suit against California Department of Transport (Caltrans), CHP and the officers who arrested him, but agreed to drop Caltrans as a defendant.
“We decided to dismiss them from the case and go solely against CHP and the arresting officers,” Attorney Duffy Carolan of Jassy Vick Carolan LLP, who represents Eberhard, told the Northern California Record.
Carolan explained that one of Eberhard’s claims was a violation of his fourth amendment rights and Caltrans was not a party to that claim – they were a party to a state law claim for false arrest.
“CHP brought a motion for summary judgment on the claims, and the court in its summary judgment ruling found that the arresting officers had probable cause to arrest Mr. Eberhard, but that the retaliation nature of the arrest, the first amendment claim against CHP, was going to survive,” Carolan said.
Carolan said that because Eberhard allegedly walked onto the site against signs that said “No Trespassing,” the court determined that a reasonable officer in the position of the arresting officers had probable cause to arrest him.
“In the probable cause determination, it’s not based on what the actual officers did, it’s based on what any reasonable officer could have done under the circumstances,” Carolan added.
According to the initial complaint, Eberhard alleged that he and other members of the press experienced “a consistent pattern of harassment and intimidation” from Caltrans and CHP while they covered various protests against the construction of the highway project.
On the morning of his arrest, Eberhard arrived on the scene where two protesters had chained themselves to two construction rigs while other protesters carried a banner and chanted. Even though the court found the officers had probable cause, Eberhard’s complaint centers on the way he was treated by officials, which differed from the way others were treated, Carolan said.
“Why did they put him in jail when two trespassers who went onto the property, walking onto the equipment, halting construction on the project that morning were cited and released?" Carolan said. "Why was there a completely different standard applied to Mr. Eberhard when they knew he was a photojournalist?”
Eberhard, who covered the protests for Willits News, was taken into custody, jailed for about two hours, and then released without being charged.
With the trial scheduled for Feb. 22, Eberhard is looking forward to finally bringing this chapter to a close, Carolan said.
“He’s anxious to have his case heard in court," Carolan said. "It’s been a long time, a lot of discovery and a lot of motions in the case.”
Eberhard also claims that after his arrest, the facts of the arrest were manipulated to falsely portray him "within his own journalistic community as a protester in order to destroy his credibility as a neutral fact gatherer.”
In 2015, Eberhard received the James Madison Freedom of Information Award from the Society of Professional Journalists for his coverage of the Willits Bypass.
“He is very well respected in the community and this has really had a very big impact on his life. He’s worked really hard, in a very small community, to build bridges amongst community members and this has really painted him in a vein that goes against everything he is,” Carolan said.