A local television reporter who claims he was strip-searched and later forced to watch a prison rape video after being accused last year of interfering with an officer and intimidating a public official filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday against the Baton Rouge Police Department and one of its officers.
WBRZ-TV’s Brett Buffington contends he was “humiliated and intimidated” by Officer Clifton Crouch’s actions May 29, and he’s seeking damages for alleged violations of his First Amendment rights and for an allegedly unreasonable seizure, false imprisonment, malicious prosecution and defamation.
Even though the East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney’s Office decided not to prosecute Buffington on the misdemeanor and felony counts on which he was booked, the reporter says the damage is done.
“Buffington’s ability to perform his duties as an investigative reporter has been seriously hindered. He can no longer effectively work with the Baton Rouge Police due to his fear of unlawful arrest,” Buffington’s attorneys, Amy Newsom and Franz Borghardt, state in the suit filed in Baton Rouge federal court and assigned to U.S. District Judge James Brady.
The lawyers argue Buffington will never be able to apply for another job without having to explain why he was arrested on a felony charge while carrying out his duties as a reporter.
The suit points out that news of Buffington’s arrest appeared in The Advocate and was picked up by numerous websites and publications across the nation.
Baton Rouge police spokesman Sgt. Don Coppola and WBRZ news director Lee Polowczuk both declined comment on the pending litigation. Polowczuk said the station is not a party to the suit.
Borghardt said Tuesday, before the suit was filed, that the case is about power and discretion.
“We give police both and trust them to exercise both in service of citizens. To protect and serve. This case shows an abuse of that public trust and power,” he said. “Like most bullies, this case deals with someone abusing power, wrongfully arresting and imprisoning someone who has committed no crime and done nothing other than exercising constitutionally protected rights.”
In the suit, Buffington says he and WBRZ executive producer Trey Schmaltz were driving through the Garden District toward Schmaltz’s home when they noticed a large police presence near the intersection of Oleander and Eugene streets. They parked at Schmaltz’s home nearby and walked back to the intersection, which was not marked by police barricades or any other signs of a crime scene, the suit notes.
Buffington contends he and Schmaltz complied with Crouch’s request to move away from the scene after identifying themselves as WBRZ reporters. After crossing the street, Buffington used his iPhone without a flash to snap a photo of the scene, prompting Crouch to handcuff Schmaltz and put him into the back of a police car, the suit claims. Buffington then took a second flashless photo to document Crouch’s actions, and the officer grabbed the back of Buffington’s shirt and pushed him into the back of the police car, the suit states.
Buffington then took a third photo of the street sign to document the location, and the phone’s flash went off, causing Crouch to take the phone and handcuff Buffington, the suit claims.
The suit says Buffington had a constitutionally protected right to record the officers performing their duties in a public space.
Buffington alleges he overheard Crouch bragging to other officers that he “had Channel 2 in the backseat.”
Crouch prepared a misdemeanor summons for both reporters, removed their handcuffs and told them they were free to leave, according to the suit, but after Buffington said in a “calm tone” to Crouch, “I hope you enjoy the rest of your career,” Crouch threatened to fire a Taser at Buffington and said, “You just talked yourself into a felony.”
Crouch again handcuffed Buffington and put him back into the police car.
After 10 hours of detention, the suit says, Buffington was released on bail.
While at East Baton Rouge Parish Prison, Buffington alleges in the suit he was taken into a room to watch a prison rape video, “suggesting he may be raped while he was in custody.”