A federal judge has set a trial date for early next year in a civil rights lawsuit filed by a young man who was tackled by State Police in the French Quarter during the 2013 Carnival season — a racially charged case that drew claims of excessive force and criticism of the troopers involved.
The incident, captured on surveillance video two days before Mardi Gras, prompted an internal State Police investigation that cleared all the officers involved, even after Superintendent Col. Mike Edmonson acknowledged the footage of two youths being forcefully subdued on Conti Street had been “unsettling” to watch.
No criminal charges were filed against the troopers, and an FBI spokeswoman said Monday that the U.S. Justice Department decided not to prosecute the case and closed its inquiry into the matter.
Whether Edmonson and other State Police officials should be held civilly liable for the encounter, meanwhile, could be determined sooner than later. U.S. District Judge Nannette Jolivette Brown, who has shown little patience for the pace of the proceedings, rejected a request by the state to postpone the case and, at a hearing last week, said the trial will start Feb. 23 if the parties don’t reach a settlement before then.
“The court finds that no good cause has been stated for the (requested) continuance,” Brown wrote in a recent order, “as lack of diligence in scheduling depositions does not constitute good cause.”
The civil rights lawsuit, filed in February of this year , claims a “swarm” of troopers racially profiled Sidney Newman, who was 17 at the time, and an 18-year-old friend, Ferdinand Hunt, and approached them “without provocation, justification or any legal cause whatsoever.”
Surveillance footage of the Feb. 10, 2013, encounter, which happened shortly after the Krewe of Bacchus parade, showed a group of plainclothes officers walking toward the youths and taking them to the ground as Hunt tried to flee. The troopers let the teenagers go after Hunt’s mother, a New Orleans police officer, walked up to the scene.
The suit claims that Newman, the only named plaintiff, had been standing in the 700 block of Conti “doing nothing wrong” when he was “violently thrown to the sidewalk, straddled, restrained and physically and verbally abused” by troopers. It also claims that Hunt was “grabbed, shoved against a wall and restrained by some of the officers” and that the youths would not have been mistreated “had they been white.”
“The actions of the officers were motivated and influenced by the fact that plaintiff Newman and Mr. Hunt were young, African American men on a public sidewalk in the French Quarter,” the lawsuit alleges. “The physical force … was unlawful, unjustified and excessive.”
Hunt, in an interview with New Orleans police, claimed the troopers failed to identify themselves, an assertion State Police have repeatedly denied.
Newman, for his part, said he put his hand in his pocket to put away his iPhone at the onset of the incident — a move Edmonson said further justified the troopers’ response.
The youths were released after Hunt’s mother, NOPD Officer Verna Hunt, came out of the Oceana Grill, where she had been waiting for an order, and shouted at troopers to “take your m*****f***ing hands off my son,” according to a police report.
While the youths weren’t seriously injured, the lawsuit claims Newman suffered “physical and psychological pain, emotional distress, mental anguish, embarrassment, humiliation and inconvenience.”
State Police brass have vehemently denied wrongdoing in the case, insisting the troopers properly identified themselves, had the authority to detain the youths and followed agency protocol.
In court papers, they maintained the troopers, deployed to the French Quarter to look for illegally concealed weapons and juveniles out past curfew, had “objective reasons” to stop the teens based on their “youthful appearance” and the fact that the area around Bourbon Street historically has been “preferred by criminals and would-be criminals for preying upon Mardi Gras revelers.”
“The force used was reasonably necessary to make this lawful stop and frisk,” Celeste Brustowicz, an attorney representing the State Police, wrote in a court filing.
Rachel Conner, the New Orleans attorney who filed the lawsuit on behalf of Newman, did not return a call seeking comment Monday. Newman also is represented by Robert McDuff, a civil rights lawyer in Jackson, Mississippi, who also did not return messages.
The incident infuriated many New Orleans residents and drew criticism from some elected officials, including Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who issued a statement at the time saying he believed State Police “did not handle that incident in the right way.”
Edmonson, who defended the troopers’ actions at a news conference and before a legislative committee, said he found the encounter concerning after first seeing the footage. But he insisted the video, which contained no audio, told only a portion of the story.
In April 2013, Edmonson told the City Council’s Criminal Justice Committee that the officers involved had more than 81 years of combined service and had not previously been accused of misuse of force. There was no evidence, he added, that Newman and Hunt were approached on account of their race, and he stressed that the State Police do not teach or condone such profiling.
“I think to suggest that these young men were manhandled or beaten would be a gross mischaracterization,” Edmonson told the committee, “because it didn’t happen.”
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.