Police Intimidation Watch: Photographer Wins $1.1 Million for Malicious Prosecution

Posted by on Thursday December 18, 2014 | Photojournalism

A New York woman who was arrested and jailed for four days after photographing an Air National Guard base from a public thoroughfare was awarded $1.1 million in compensatory damages by a federal jury last week.

Nancy Genovese sued the town of Southampton, New York, the Suffolk County sheriff’s department and several individual officers in 2010, alleging violations of her constitutional rights, assault, battery, false arrest, use of unreasonable and excessive force, and malicious prosecution.

In a trial that concluded December 11, jurors concluded that Suffolk County sheriff’s deputy Robert Carlock had maliciously prosecuted Genovese. But Genovese failed to prove that Carlock had initiated criminal proceedings because of her political associations. Therefore, the jury found that Carlock was not liable for violating Genovese’s First Amendment right of free speech.

Although jurors reached agreement on the $1.1 million award for compensatory damages, they were unable to reach a unanimous decision on punitive damages, so deliberations are continuing.

According to court papers, Genovese was driving home in July, 2009 past the Gabreski Airport Air National Guard base in Suffolk County (Long Island) when she stopped her car to photograph a helicopter on display in front of the base. Genovese made the photograph from inside her car, intending to post the photo on a “Support Our Troops” website.

As she was preparing to drive away, a Southampton, New York police officer approached her and asked what she was doing. Genovese explained what she was photographing, tried to show the officer the images on her camera’s LCD, and then ended up giving the officer her camera card to protect her camera, which the officer was treating roughly, according to Genovese’s lawsuit.

At that point, the Southampton police officer ordered Genovese to remain where she was, and called the county sheriff’s department to report Genovese’s presence outside the base, “falsely and wrongly informing” the sheriff’s department that Genovese “posed a terrorist threat,” she said in her claim.

Authorities from the FBI, Homeland Security, the ANG base, and the local police and sheriff’s department rushed to the scene. Genovese was questioned on the roadside for “five or six hours.” She alleged that her car was searched without her consent, and because she had just come from a local shooting range, authorities found an AR 15 rifle, as well as a shotgun and ammunition, in her car. Southampton police seized the guns, which were legally registered, according to court papers.

According to the suit, Suffolk sheriff’s deputy Carlock said to Genovese, “You’re a right winger, aren’t you?” He and another unidentified officer proceeded to taunt Genovese, repeatedly referring to her as a “right winger” and “tea bagger” and allegedly threatening to arrest her for terrorism “to make an example of her to other ‘tea baggers.'”

After hours of questioning, federal authorities concluded that Genovese wasn’t a security threat. After they left the scene, however, an unidentified sheriff’s deputy handcuffed Genovese, and transported her to jail, where Carlock allegedly told her that although authorities “had nothing to charge her with,” they would “find something in order to teach all right wingers and tea baggers a lesson.”

She was charged later that night with “terrorism,” and arraigned the next day on criminal trespass charges. Bail was set at $50,000 because of sheriff’s “inflammatory accusations” that she was a terrorist and a flight risk, she alleges in her lawsuit.

Genovese spent four days in the county jail, until she was finally able to raise the money for her bail. While in jail, she alleges, deputies continued to taunt her, subject her to sleep deprivation, deny her medical care for a leg injury that became infected, and instigate alarmist media coverage by releasing to reporters false information about Genovese and the circumstances of her arrest.

The criminal trespass charges against Genovese were dismissed in November, 2009. She filed suit on July 29, 2010.

In her lawsuit, she alleged violation of her First Amendment right of free speech, as well as violations of her Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments rights of freedom from unreasonable search and seizure. She also claimed she was subject to fear and terror, humiliation, degradation, physical pain and emotional distress.

In 2013, a federal judge dismissed Genovese’s claims against the town of Southampton and its police officers. The judge ruled that the Southampton police officer who originally stopped Genovese had probable cause to do so; that the officer didn’t use excessive force; and that Southampton police seized a gun in her car “under a lawful exception to the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment” because it was in plain view insider her car. Therefore, the court said, Southampton police did not violate her constitutional rights.

The judge also dismissed false arrest claims against Suffolk County sheriffs, on the grounds that they acted on the “probable cause” determination of Southampton police. But the court declined to dismiss Genovese’s malicious prosecution claims against Carlock and the sheriff’s department, clearing the way for the trial, which began December 8 and lasted for three days.

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