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Garfield Heights settles First Amendment/police-brutality suit over “laughing while black”; commits to police training

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Robert Spencer was arrested, beaten, & unsuccessfully prosecuted for joking with children in his front yard. City, which had not trained officers on the First Amendment, agreed to pay $80,000 and provide Chandra Law-approved training.

CLEVELAND, OH – Today, the City of Garfield Heights agreed to pay $80,000 in connection with Robert Spencer's federal civil-rights lawsuit alleging First Amendment and Fourth Amendment police-brutality violations. And the the city also agreed as part of the settlement to “provide mandatory and adequate training to all active-duty police officers” and “provide all training materials and attendance records" to Chandra Law for advance approval—subject to judicial enforcement—on the following constitutional and civil rights:

  • First Amendment protections for criticisms of police officers, with significant attention to community policing and the avoidance of racial bias, and speech idiomatic to racial and ethnic minority communities;
  • First Amendment protections for recording police officers in public;
  • First Amendment limitations on arrests for obstruction of police business, and prosecutions for protected speech;
  • Fourth Amendment prohibitions on the use of excessive force in arrests and detentions, and prosecutions for protected speech;
  • Thirteenth Amendment limitations on forced labor by unconvicted prisoners; and
  • Civil-rights protections against police retaliation for protected speech.

All of these constitutional rights were issues in the case, The city's response to Chandra Law's request for public records confirmed that the city had no record of training its officers on the First Amendment.

The complaint alleged that in July 2017, Garfield Heights police officers drove a patrol-car down Mr. Spencer’s street, and passed him in his yard with local children. After confronting Mr. Spencer with false and rapidly evolving accounts of “threats” he supposedly made as they drove by (with their windows up), they resorted to violence without provocation when he insulted them. Spencer made fun of the officers, referring to them as “Beavis & Butthead” and “Elvis.” The complaint further alleged that the officers arrested him and beat him at the police station where he was unconstitutionally pressed into labor, and threatened to destroy evidence.

According to the complaint, the officers confirmed their motivation on videotape: to punish Mr. Spencer’s speech. “All you had to do was shut the fuck up,” one officer said. “We weren’t even going to arrest you.” They told Mr. Spencer that “saying stuff to us when we drive by” justified investigation, arrest, detention, beatings, and prosecution—all of which he could have avoided by “keep[ing] his mouth shut when we came out.”

Patrick Kabat, one of Mr. Spencer’s attorneys, said, “We commend Garfield Heights for promptly committing to addressing the issues Mr. Spencer’s ordeal exposed. Our constitutional rights do not enforce themselves, and violations can never be undone, but adequate training is a vital first step towards ensuring that citizens’ rights will not be ignored by those sworn to protect.”

The case was captioned Spencer v. Falzini, et al. in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio, Case No. 1:18-cv-01764, before U.S. District Judge Donald C. Nugent.

Mr. Spencer was represented by Subodh Chandra and Patrick Kabat of the Chandra Law Firm LLC.

Related Practice Areas
First AmendmentGovernment Ethics, Misconduct, Fraud, & AbuseOhio Public Records Act, Open Meetings Act, FOIA, & Sunshine LawsPolice Misconduct & BrutalityMediation

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